March 17, 2011 – Article I, Section 07, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution – Guest Essayist: Kyle Scott, Political Science Department and Honors College Professor at the University of Houston

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Article I, Section 7, Clause 3

3:  Every Order, Resolution, or Vote to which the Concurrence of the Senate and House of Representatives may be necessary (except on a question of Adjournment) shall be presented to the President of the United States; and before the Same shall take Effect, shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be repassed by two thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, according to the Rules and Limitations prescribed in the Case of a Bill.

Within a single clause we see on display one of the most important components of the U.S. Constitution: a system of checks and balances. Within Article 1, Section 7, Clause 3 we see that not only must a bill pass through both houses of the bicameral legislature, but it must also be signed by the President, who resides in the executive branch, in order for it to become law.

The bicameral legislature is the result of what would become known as the Connecticut Compromise. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787 the large states proposed a bicameral legislature where the states would be represented in the national assembly in proportion to their state’s population. Therefore, a state like Virginia would have more representatives than a small state like New Jersey. The small states countered with what would become known as the New Jersey Plan. In this plan there was to be a unicameral legislature in which the states would be represented equally. Roger Sherman from Connecticut proposed a bicameral legislature in which the membership in the lower house would be determined by state population and in the upper house each state would be represented equally. There were some modifications before it was put into the Constitution, but for the most part the Connecticut Compromise created our current legislative structure in which each state is represented in the House of Representatives in proportion to the state’s population and each state is represented by two senators in the upper house, or Senate. In order to balance the interests of the small states and the large states, a bill must pass through both houses in identical form before it can be sent to the President for his signature or veto.

By instituting a system of checks and balances the Constitution introduces delay into the process in order stymie reactionary policies by allowing various interests to voice their support or opposition. This assuaged the concerns of those who feared the ability of the many to lead the country haphazardly down a path of ever changing public sentiment, and those who feared the capricious decision making of a monarchy or aristocracy that would strip the people of their liberty. Therefore, the Connecticut Compromise was not just a compromise between big states and small states, but between those who favored more democracy and those who favored less. The House was intended to be representative of the people’s interests—as members of this chamber were elected directly by the people—and the Senate was intended to be representative of the entire state as determined by the state’s political elite—as Senators were to be chosen by the state legislature, for it was not until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 that Senators were directly elected by the people.

Once a bill satisfied the concerns of the people and the elite, and those from large states and small states, it was sent to the President who was supposed to represent the view of the whole nation. Thus, it was yet another check introduced into the system. If the bill ran against the nation’s best interests the President was supposed to veto it. But, the President could not single-handedly stop legislation as Congress is given the ability to override a veto by a 2/3’s vote in each chamber. In granting veto override authority to Congress the Framer’s of the Constitution institutionalized distrust of a single executive, surely a by-product of their experience under King George III.

When a system of checks and balances is effectively implemented it is able to prevent the interests of some overwhelming the interests of others in a way that would threaten safety and liberty. When a group has the ability to protect its interests against the competing interests of another group, a compromise must be reached between the competing groups in order for the policy process to move forward. The compromise produces moderate policy, and change that is slow and incremental. The animating characteristic of this program is self-protection, which itself is spawned from the emphasis the Framer’s placed on liberty. We cannot entrust others to protect our liberty, but we must do it ourselves by being engaged, informed, and responsible in our political and private lives. It is our liberty that gives us the ability to do these things, and it is our liberty we protect when we do. Because liberty is an instrumental and intrinsic value, there is a symbiotic relationship between our political involvement and our liberty that the Constitution seeks to institutionalize.

Kyle Scott is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Honors College at the University of Houston. His third book, Federalism, is due out March 17th. Dr. Scott has written on the Federalist Papers for Constituting America and proudly serves as a member of its Constitutional Advisory Board. He can be reached at kascott@uh.edu. Or, you can follow his blog at www.redroom.com/member/kylescott

6 replies
  1. CA.org
    CA.org says:

    Professor Scott, thank you for your essay!

    This quote says it all, “We cannot entrust others to protect our liberty, but we must do it ourselves by being engaged, informed, and responsible in our political and private lives. It is our liberty that gives us the ability to do these things, and it is our liberty we protect when we do. Because liberty is an instrumental and intrinsic value, there is a symbiotic relationship between our political involvement and our liberty that the Constitution seeks to institutionalize.”

    Brilliant!

    Thank you again,
    Cathy Gillespie

    Reply
    • Barb Zakszewski
      Barb Zakszewski says:

      Couldn’t agree more!! It is up to each one of us to educate ourselves… If we do not take it upon ourselves to do this, than our Nation is already lost!!

      Reply
  2. Ron Meier
    Ron Meier says:

    Prof Scott, this may come in another section on Presidential Powers; if so, please disregard for now and I hope to remember to bring it up later. In yesterday’s paper, I saw that a czar, Elizabeth Warren, has the power to set her own budget and institute rules as she pleases, with no congressional oversight. I don’t know how much of that is true, but it seems at odds with the idea of checks and balances, as you note above about the distrust of a single executive, such as King George III.

    Reply
  3. Janine Turner
    Janine Turner says:

    Mr. Scott, I thank you joining us again this year and for your fantastic essay! I have become familiar with the Connecticut Compromise through our studies but I have never before realized the other reason it was a compromise – a compromise between those who favored more democracy and those who favored less. Balance! It is also of note that part of the slow policy making process is due to the fact that the House passes a bill, then the Senate passes their version, then they have to come together and write a bill that compromises both bills then they must pass through both Houses again in identical form before it can be sent to the President for his signature or veto. And if there is a veto then the House and Senate have to take another vote and pass by a 2/3 majority. Brilliant. A system to curb passions and making sure prudence prevails! And since we abide by this process/clause for congressional legislation, then why is it that the mantra, “the constitution is irrelevant” echoes throughout certain factions?
    Someday I would relish learning why there was a movement for the 17th amendment. I am personally perplexed that the true intention regarding the structure of government and true intent of a bi-cameral legislature was altered. What was the impetus?
    God bless,
    Janine Turner

    Reply
  4. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    Spider says:
    April 22, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    There were two main reasons the 17th Amendment was adopted in 1913; One was the deadlock of State Legislatures when electing U.S. Senators. The other was the corruption of the State Legislators.
    ———————
    I do also recall that the 17th Amendment came about as one of the stop-gap measures to head of a time when the nation was close to having a Constitution Convention. If there was no 17th at the time, then there may very well have been a convention that could have radically altered the Constitution for better or for worse.

    Spider does not that nowadays with the WWW that legislatures pretty much cannot hide their doings from public view as was back then, and so he advocates repealing the 17th and, of course, continually affording the state executive to make interim appointments to fill US Senate vacancies until the legislature makes up their mind to put someone in the Senate seat.

    Reply
  5. Kyle Scott
    Kyle Scott says:

    I apologize for not partaking in the discussion on March 17th. Thank you all for the comments and I will be sure I am in town with any future postings.

    Ron Meier: Elizabeth Warren does have a lot of authority that goes unchecked by Congress. There is an ongoing dispute within Administrative Law in that bureaucrats and appointees in the executive branch (from either party) are given a substantial amount of autonomy that goes unchecked. This certainly conflicts with what I understand to be the intention of the Founders.

    Janine Turner: The populist movement that began in the late-19th century had a lot to do with the 17th Amendment. The populist party was swallowed up by WJ Bryan in the 1896 election, but still controlled much of the Democratic Party’s platform. Teddy Roosevelt took up the populist cause with the Progressive Movement. Populism was prevalent even though TR lost in 1912. The populist movement during this time, in its various forms, was reflective of the demand for a more egalitarian government that was to be achieved by making goverment more democratic. The result was the 17th Amendment in 1913 that provided for the direct election of Senators and the 19th in 1920 which gave women the right to vote. The 17th did alter the structure of the Constitution and the manner in which representation occurs.

    Thank you all again for your comments and questions.

    Reply

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