Founders Empowered The People’s House

“The House of Representatives remains the most democratic  part of the national constitutional system.”

The American people reconfirmed on Nov. 6 that they are content with divided government. While President Obama had  an impressive electoral victory and the Democrats picked up  seats in the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives remains under Republican control.

Although some public officials and commentators are  downplaying the significance of the fact that Republicans  held onto the House, this response to the election flies in the face of the constitutional status of the House as the most important “democratic” part of our national governmental system.

Leading Founders like James Madison may not have wanted a pure democratic system of government for the United States, but they understood that to be legitimate a government must  be based on the consent of the people, and it must be  committed to protecting the fundamental rights of the  people. What they devised for the American people was a  democratic republic or a representative form of  democracy.

Evidence of the Framers’ commitment to creating a  democratic form of government, even if not a pure democracy,  can be found in the very first article of the Constitution,  and specifically in their decision to make the legislative  department, composed of the greatest number of  representatives of the people, the preeminent department of   the government.

Not only is the legislative branch the recipient of a larger number of formidable governmental powers (see Article  1, Section 8) than the executive and judicial branches, but Congress is given the power to remove through impeachment  the highest officials of the other two departments of the  national government while at the same time retaining the  power to discipline, to the point of removing, its own members.

What is often lost from sight today, however, is that the Framers entrusted the House of Representatives, or the most  democratic part of Congress, with the power that many early Americans feared most of all: the power to initiate revenue/tax legislation.

Even at a time when constitutional illiteracy is a major  problem, many American school children are familiar with the  insistence of colonial Americans that there be “no taxation without representation.”

Colonial Americans knew what Chief Justice John Marshall  knew about the power to tax, that is, that it is the “power   to destroy.”  What it destroys, of course, is property, and property rights were sacred in colonial America.

The decision to entrust the initiation of tax legislation to the House was a purposeful and significant decision by the Framers. They understood that the part of our  governmental system that was closest to the people should  have special influence over the power to tax and thus to destroy property.

It was not by chance that House members have two-year terms, compared to four and six years for presidents and  senators. Keeping House members on a short leash is an effective way to promote attentiveness to the will of the  people.

The House of Representatives remains the most democratic  part of the national constitutional system. Americans are  more likely to meet their Congressman or congresswoman than either one of their U.S. senators or a president. They are  more likely to be able to engage a member of the House than the Senate in a serious conversation about national policy  and, not surprisingly, we instinctively look to our local  congressman or congresswoman for assistance in matters involving federal agencies (e.g., VA benefits).

The constitutional status of the House, and the “mandate”  that can be claimed by the party that controls the House,  warrants proper attention if we are serious about being a  “constitutional people” and if we are intent on preserving the bona fides of our “constitutional republic.”

If, for example, we embrace the argument that a popular  mandate claimed by a president trumps Constitution-based  institutional considerations, then we are effectively   abandoning “constitutional politics” for the dangerous  “power politics” that we properly condemned in the  Declaration of Independence.

Affirming the constitutional significance of the House is not the same as declaring that the Framers intended this  legislative chamber to call all the shots when it comes to  crafting policies for the nation or that members of the  House are not obligated to exercise good judgment.

It is to say, however, that the Framers understood that  the opinions of the people reflected by their  representatives in the House deserve to be taken very   seriously and that the most democratic part of the national  government should have considerable influence over tax  policy.

The fact that the country has changed since the Founding  should not justify abandonment of constitutional reasoning.   Mechanisms for appropriate constitutional reforms have been built into the system. What is not desirable or beneficial   is the substitution of “power politics” for contitutional           politics,” or the substitution of public opinion polls for  constitutional reasoning.

Constitutional politics, unlike power politics (represented in the modern era by the excesses associated  with racial segregation), is rooted in both the ends of the  American republic and the institutional arrangements  designed to assist us in achieving those ends.

The American republic is constructed the way it is (e.g.,  two-year terms for members of the House, six-year terms for   senators, a federal system with power divided among  national, state and local governments, etc.) for good reasons.

Political strategies that involve depreciating the   constitutional significance of any part of our governmental  system, including the role of the House of Representatives,  are at odds with a civic culture that values constitutional reasoning and that validates our claim to be a  “constitutional people.”

Source:  David Marion, Elliott Professor if  Government and Foreign Affairs and director of the Wilson Center for Leadership at Hampton Sydney College.  Op-Ed, Richmond Times Dispatch, December 3, 2012


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