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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, you can follow his blog at www.redroom.com/member/kylescott