July 9, 2010 – Federalist No. 53 – Cathy Gillespie

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Friday, July 9th, 2010

Federalist 53 was a reminder to me of how blessed our country is to live under a system of government “established by the people and unalterable by the government.”

“The important distinction so well understood in America, between a Constitution established by the people and unalterable by the government, and a law established by the government and alterable by the government, seems to have been little understood and less observed in any other country. Wherever the supreme power of legislation has resided, has been supposed to reside also a full power to change the form of the government.”

We forget that in many other countries, terms of office may be capriciously changed to meet the political needs of the office holders.

Publius refers to “frequency of elections,” as the “cornerstone” of free government.  A theme throughout the Federalist is the people’s role in protecting their own liberty.  Elections are the people’s voice.

Publius also outlines the importance of members of Congress having enough time to learn the job.  He predicts that some members of “superior talents; will, by frequent reelections, become members of long standing.”

A recent Congressional Research Service report on the average tenure of a member of Congress  stated:

“The average years of service for Members of the 110th Congress, as of January 3, 2007, when the Congress convened was 10.0 years for the House and 12.82 years for the Senate. This is a record for the Senate. House Members who took their seats at the beginning of the 102nd Congress (1991-1993) represent the high point of Representatives’ average tenure (10.4 years).”

This is interesting, compared to the early history of our country, when most Senators did not even complete their six year term.  CRS notes that in the early Republic, House Members began to exceed their two year terms after the Fourth Congress, but their average service did rise above four years until 1901-1903.  During the Great Depression, the average tenure of a U.S. House member shot up to seven years.

Many people today call for term limits, to bring back the concept of citizen legislator.  As these proposals develop, attention would need to be given to the power of staff, especially committee staff, who, if not checked as well, would end up with even greater influence as members of Congress come and go.

Although Publius points out the merit of some seasoned legislators, he also warns, “No man will subject himself to the ridicule of pretending that any natural connection subsists between the sun or the seasons, and the period within which human virtue can bear the temptations of power.”

There are strong arguments on both sides of the term limits issue, but as Publius reminds us in Federalist No. 51:

“A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.”

The people are the energy of the government. When they are engaged and paying attention, recognizing that knowledge is power, the need for term limits will not be as great. Even the best governmental structures will not reap the desired results, unless the “genius of the people,” the primary energy of government is fully engaged and deployed.

Thank you to all of you who are joining us on this journey through the Federalist Papers.  Knowledge is Power!

Looking forward to Federalist No. 54!

Cathy Gillespie

 

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