Publius continues a lengthy examination of the election and composition of the House of Representatives with a response in Federalist 57 to the charge that the chamber will tend towards oligarchy. He finds this an absurdity in light of the short term of the representatives and the liberal and flexible qualifications for both those who will be elected and those who will elect them. But, in the harsh light of experience, is the objection entirely absurd?
Classic democratic and republican constitutions commonly relied on three formal devices connected with the selection of officials to prevent concentration of power in a few ambitious individuals. Those were selection by lot, short terms of office, and term limits. These mechanisms often were used for the selection of civil executive and administrative officers, the “upper house” of the legislature (such as the Venetian Senate), and—in Athens at least—the juries. The “lower house” of the legislature in each of them was not based on representation but on participation by the whole qualified class of citizens. In the House of Representatives, however, the representative principle applies, which makes that body more analogous to the first class of offices. Our system retains traditional democratic essentials in the selection of juries, intended to produce a cross-section of the community, to prevent corruption through jury tampering, and to keep “professional” jurors from accumulating power.
Classic republicanism saw election as “oligarchic,” unlike the “democratic” method of selection by lot. True, election can produce more qualified officials than the uncertainties from drawing lots. Done well, it elevates the most deserving, a point Madison hammers home in his discussion. If it works right, election can produce a true aristokratia, a government of the best. After all, the Athenians selected their strategoi, the military commanders, by vote and without term limits, because military skills are more specialized and crucial than ordinary bureaucratic talents. But the corrupt form of aristocracy is oligarchy, a government of the few for their gain. In that corruption lies the problem.
The classical distrust of elections was precisely what the Antifederalists feared, namely, that certain individuals would gain disproportionate personal power and begin to see their offices not as a public trust but as a personal estate. Inevitably, this would corrupt even the most virtuous newcomer. Moreover, once the official left office, the influence he gained in office likely would cause the office to be passed on to an ally or hand-picked successor, thereby creating a semi-hereditary sinecure. Looking at many members of Congress today (though not just them), one sees this political dynamic at work relentlessly. Short terms have not prevented the emergence of Congressional “barons,” those who spend decades in Congress tending to their fiefdoms. Nor is that entrenchment necessarily due to some great superiority of personal qualities rather than the inertia of party identification among voters and the gerrymandering of districts to protect party and incumbent advantage.
What forms might such corruption take, other than those already mentioned? Among them, Madison concedes the danger from laws that favor politicians, their friends, and particular interest groups, including ones that expressly exempt politicians from the coverage of those laws. Favoring the particular over the general interest is anathema to republican purists, but also a fact of political life that, as Publius has written frequently, must be channeled, as it cannot be cured.
Madison’s proposed solutions are by turns plausible, idealistic, resigned, and non-responsive. He mentions term limitation, by which he means frequency of election. Though many state offices at the time had annual terms, the two-year term for House members is sufficiently republican.
Second, the lack of property, religion, and status qualifications means that the net will be cast widely for suitable candidates. Could additional limits, other than those qualifications expressly written into the Constitution, be imposed by Congress or the states? As to the first, the Supreme Court emphatically rejected that proposition, concluding in Powell v. McCormack (1969) that the list of qualifications in the Constitution was exclusive. The Court also rejected that argument more circumspectly in regards to the very different issue of state regulation of the number of terms to be served in Congress, in Term Limits v. Thornton (1995). Madison’s reference in Federalist 53 to the lengthy terms some likely would serve, somewhat supports the Court’s conclusion. Third, the voters will have the same qualifications that the states themselves deem sufficiently republican.
Madison’s further reliance on politicians’ gratitude and sense of honor as restraining, at least for a while, the various corrupting tendencies is noble, but naive. Homo politicus is, unfortunately, too often characterized by a lack of these desirable natural sensibilities. The sentiment also conflicts with Publius’s admonition in Federalist 51 that, to limit government to its proper purposes, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Madison is closer to the mark in suggesting that ambition for re-election works as a universal motivator for politicians’ behavior. Public choice theory has demonstrated just that.
The problem is that Madison connects that ambition with doing what benefits the voting majority. Leaving aside whether what is good for the immediate majority is collectively good for the people over the longer term, is Madison correct? Again, public choice theory, based on just watching what politicians do, shows that politicians’ self-interest and the rent-seeking by organized special interests better explains voting behavior than a strong attachment to collective good (if the latter can even be determined coherently) or even to the preferences of a weakly-organized majority. Then there is the matter of how that cozy connection between politicians and organized minorities seeking government favors affects the problem of faction that Publius has addressed repeatedly, if voting cannot cure that problem.
He grants that these internal and external controls may be “insufficient to control the caprice and wickedness of men,” but declares that this is all the mind and hand of man can devise, and that these controls reflect traditional republican practice. In Federalist 51, among others, Publius discussed the importance of constitutional structures as auxiliary precautions against the excesses of government. Here, he hedges those bets. Publius is right that the forms of government are important, but can only do so much to temper corrupt extravagances. The system’s success ultimately depends on the quality of people elected by voters possessed of the judgment and character that balances republican virtue, self-restraint, and vigilant self-interest, and on the subtler bonds of cultural and political tradition. Constitutional forms help, but, ultimately, responsibility lies with the people.
Madison warns against laws that will not have “full operation on [Congressmen] and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society.” Making only laws that are universally applicable “has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together.” Citizen legislators must not be a privileged class.
Though the Republican take-over of Congress in 1995 spurred the passage of a law that removed Congressional exemption from a dozen anti-discrimination, labor, and safety laws, there yet remain other laws that apply to private citizens but not to Congress. Madison asserts that the American spirit will restrain the legislature from making legal discriminations in their favor and that of a particular class. “If this spirit shall ever be so far debased, as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate anything but liberty.” Where does that place us? As many have said in some variant about republican systems, “The people get the government they deserve.”
Thursday, July 15th, 2010
An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. Prof. Knipprath has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. His website is http://www.tokenconservative.com.