LISTEN ON SOUNDCLOUD:
The contemporary refrain on Congress is that it is the branch of the Federal Government most reviled, and least functional. Pundits and professional scholars alike speak of gridlock and partisanship; political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann have decried the branch of the people in a series of books with titles like “The Broken Branch” and “It’s Worse than it Looks.”
If public opinion polling is any indication, Ornstein and Mann are more than justified in their conclusions. A visit to Real Clear Politics (as of authorship) reveals a Congressional approval rating of 15.9%, and a staggering 73.7% disapprove of the job Congress is doing. A quick search of Gallup’s historical trends on Congress and the public reveals that approval hasn’t risen above 50% since June of 2003.
To many of the framers of the Constitution, this public sentiment would seem quite alarming, especially with an incumbency reelection rate cited as high as 80%. The legislature was intended to be the branch of the people, the expression of their will, and the legitimizing feature of the new 1787 Constitution.
One of the voices most concerned with the new government being as close to the people as possible was James Wilson of Pennsylvania. Wilson emerged early as a vocal Federalist, who sought a robust national government to overcome the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation and envisioned America as a nation that would come to dominate the North American continent. In Madison’s Notes of Debate, we find Wilson’s arguments on May 31, “Mr. Wilson contended strenuously for drawing the most numerous branch of the legislature immediately from the people. He was for raising the federal pyramid to a considerable altitude, and for that reason wished to give it as broad a basis as possible. No government could long subsist without the confidence of the people.”
Madison followed Wilson, he “considered the popular election of one branch of the National Legislature as essential to every plan of free Government.” The sentiment was broadly, but not wholly shared, as Elbridge Gerry and Roger Sherman would dissent, to say nothing of the delegation from New York, excepting Alexander Hamilton (and even Hamilton feared mob rule). Regardless, the Federalists understood the need for an energetic centralized government to right the economy, negotiate with the European powers that dominated the seas and a good portion of the North American Continent, and foremost, remedy the flaws of the Articles of Confederation.
While the Congress was to be the branch closest to the people, it was not to serve as a mirror. As Madison famously notes in Federalist 10, faction presented perhaps the greatest source of danger to a Republic. This led to the question as to whether a large or small republic was the way to prevent faction. Madison noted a benefit of republican government was “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen, that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good, than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.” A large republic with an assembly of broadly selected representatives served not only as a bulwark against a demagogue, but for Madison, further served to take the laws citizens may create recklessly in a more democratic system, and refine them to preserve liberty and reach their intended goal.
The brilliance of design in the Constitution that came out of the 1787 convention was to at once rest on the support of the people, passing the laws necessary for the public good, and conversely, ameliorate the effects of faction (which Madison believed latent in human nature), preventing the rise of laws destructive to liberty and justice. In being the branch closest to the people, Congress also has an obligation to defend the laws of the people and the people themselves from the usurpations of other branches of government.
In 1834, Senate Whigs censured President Jackson. The Whigs desired documents on Jackson’s destruction of the Second Federal Bank, but the Jackson administration refused to comply. Jackson wrote a lengthy and blistering response to the censure, where he accused the Senate of violating not only the separation of powers, but the Constitutional procedure for impeachment.
On May 7, 1834, renowned orator and Whig Senator, Daniel Webster presented not only a tremendous response to Jackson, but made a clear articulation as to why the Congress is the branch of the citizens, “Sir [President Jackson] if the people have a right to discuss the official conduct of the executive so have their representatives. We have been taught to regard a representative of the people as a sentinel on the watch tower of liberty. Is he to be blind though visible danger approaches? Is he to be deaf though sounds of peril fill the air? Is he to be dumb while a thousand duties impel him to raise the cry of alarm? Is he not rather to catch the lowest whisper which breathes intention or purpose of encroachment on the public liberties and to give his voice breath and utterance at the first appearance of danger? Is not his eye to traverse the whole horizon with the keen and eager vision of an unhooded hawk detecting through all disguises every enemy advancing in any form toward the citadel which he guards?” The goal of the legislature is not merely as a body to create positive law, like the congressionally chartered Second Bank of the United States, but to sit as trustees guarding the liberty of the citizens.
Webster continues, “Sir this watchfulness for public liberty, this duty of foreseeing danger and proclaiming it, this promptitude and boldness in resisting attacks on the constitution from any quarter, this defence of established landmarks, this fearless resistance of whatever would transcend or remove them, all belong to the representative character, are interwoven with its very nature and of which it cannot be deprived, without converting an active intelligent faithful agent of the people into an unresisting and passive instrument of power. A representative body which gives up these rights and duties gives itself up. It is a representative body no longer. It has broken the tie between itself and its constituents, and henceforth is fit only to be regarded as an inert, self-sacrificed mass, from which all appropriate principle of vitality has departed forever.” These are not minor implications. Congress has the most direct tie to the fount of power in America, the people. All laws, resolutions, chartered agencies, stem from the desires of the people. When congress fails to take the views into consideration, fails to refine them to compatibility with the constitution, with liberty, and with principles of justice, it has, as Webster notes, ceased to be a representative body.
Often unpopular, dislike for the House and Senate has hit all-time lows. What then, does it mean for Americans today, when public approval of Congress hovers around 20%, when it is meant to be the closest reflection of who they are? What does it say about the character of the citizenry? And perhaps most ominously, will the laws of the nation begin to follow the departed vitality Webster laments above?
James Legee, Visiting Lecturer, Framingham State University Department of Political Science
Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day at 12:30 pm Eastern!
Click Here for the previous essay.
Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90 Day Study on Congress.