J. Scott Applewhite, AP
The Capitol is seen as New Year's Day comes to a close with the partial government shutdown in its second week, in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019.

The most meaningful action new members of Congress can take Thursday is to carefully and honestly internalize the words of the oath of office they repeat before officially entering the ranks of the world’s most important legislative body.

Sadly, some might get swept away in the pageantry of the day. Wandering the halls of the Capitol and posing for photos with party leadership has a certain allure that’s hard to escape. But members of Congress new and old must not take lightly their charge to defend and uphold the Constitution.

Here’s the oath in full if you need a refresher:

“I, ______, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

It’s a somber sentence that almost didn’t make it into U.S. history. When framers gathered to draft a new government, the idea of an oath divided them. “A good government did not need them,” argued James Wilson of Pennsylvania, “and a bad one could not or ought not to be supported.”

There’s truth to Wilson’s argument. What group of intellectual framers seeking freedom would advocate for a bad government, and what nation of citizens would support it?

Of course, with history as a guide, no government is good enough to preclude individuals from following their own form of destructive leadership, which is why the framers were wise to ensure public servants “shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution” (emphasis added).

The allegiance of elected officials is neither to the president, the leaders of their parties nor to any legislation that emerges from the Capitol. Members of Congress don’t swear or affirm to follow the latest trends or shifting public opinion. Their allegiance is to the document that binds the country together, and their duty is to defend it from anything that might erode its authority.

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When federal officials take their oath of office, they promise to put the country first, an act requiring patriotism, service and sacrifice. It means doing the hard work of governing, especially when it’s inconvenient. It means protecting the nation from peril rather than swearing allegiance to donors and fundraising. It means anticipating problems rather than kicking issues down the road, and it means accepting accountability for those problems when they do arise.

The same can be said for local leaders who took a similar oath of office on Tuesday.

More so than electing a new speaker of the House or building coalitions in the Senate, fully and sincerely embracing the duty to support and defend the Constitution on Thursday would have the greatest impact on the future of the country. We hope members understand that solemn responsibility.