Guest Essayist: William C. Duncan, Director of the Marriage Law Foundation

Article 1, Section 5, Clause 1
1:  Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller Number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.

Article I, section 5, clause 1 of the Constitution gives to the branches of the Legislature power to “judge” or determine whether an election of one of its members is valid and whether the person elected meets the Constitutional requirements for service. Without such a check, Joseph Story explained, “any intruder, or a usurper, might claim a seat, and thus trample upon the rights and privileges, and liberties of the people.” Joseph Story, 2 Commentaries on the Constitution §831 (1833).

The U.S. Supreme Court discussed this provision in a case challenging the House of Representatives’ decision to exclude Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. over allegations of corruption. In that case, the Court ruled the House could not exclude Representative Powell unless he did not meet one of the qualifications in the Constitution (age, citizenship, etc.). In other words, his exclusion was unconstitutional because the House had added a qualification not in the Constitution. See Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969). As stated in a later case: “The decision as to whether a Member satisfied these qualifications [those in Article I, section 2] was placed with the House, but the decision as to what these qualifications consisted of was not.” Nixon v. United States, 506 U.S. 224, 237 (1993).

The next part of the clause deals with the quorum required to do business. The challenge here was to ensure that the requirement was not too much or too little but just right.

In the Constitutional Convention, Oliver Ellsworth, succinctly made the case that a majority should be required for a quorum: “It would be a pleasing ground of confidence to the people that no law or burden could be imposed on them, by a few men.” Philip B. Kurland & Ralph Lerner, editors, 2 The Founders Constitution 289 (1987); see also John Bryan Williams, “How to Survive a Terrorist Attack: The Constitution’s Majority Quorum Requirement and the Continuity of Congress”48 William & Mary Law Review 102 (2006).

On the other hand, a larger requirement might have had advantages but would have become unworkable. In Federalist 58, James Madison notes this and adds that if there were a more stringent requirement “In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority.” This would happen because the minority could keep anything from being done.

As Congress now operates, the question of a quorum is not usually considered unless a member requests a quorum call, usually as a way of delaying the business of the body.

One very real threat to the quorum requirement would come if a number of members decided to flee or otherwise avoid attending the deliberations of Congress so as to prevent a quorum and keep business from being done. Of course this is occurring right now as members of the Wisconsin Senate have fled the state in order to prevent a quorum and thus the passage of legislation with which they disagree.

This behavior was anathema to the Framers. James Madison called it “the baneful practice of secessions . . . a practice which leads more directly to public convulsions, and the ruin of popular governments, than any other which has yet been displayed among us.”. Federalist 58; see also William C. Marra, “What Would America’s Founders Think About Fleeing Legislators?” Weekly Standard (February 28, 2011) at

The Framers effectively countered such a threat by allowing a smaller number of legislators to compel their erstwhile colleagues to return. In the Philadelphia Convention, John Randolph and James Madison proposed adding this requirement on August 10, 1787, the day that the quorum requirement was debated. Kurland & Lerner at 290. If effectively applied, it can prevent a minority takeover of the power of the national government through inaction.

Yet another example of how current developments help us to see the wisdom and foresight of the Constitution’s drafters.

Mr. Duncan is director of the Marriage Law Foundation ( He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.

Guest Essayist: Charles K. Rowley, Ph.D., Duncan Black Professor of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia

Let me commence this discussion with an important caveat.  There are two ways in which to evaluate the contributions of the Founding Fathers in drafting and pursuing the ratification of the various Articles and Sections of the United States Constitution.  The first way is by reference to the circumstances of the emerging nation and the knowledge available to the Founders.  The second way is by reference to the circumstances of our time and the accumulated knowledge that is now available.  I shall focus primarily on the first way, given the exigencies of space.

The Federalist, No. 52, written by Hamilton or Madison, explains and justifies Article I, Section 2 of the draft Constitution, with particular regard to the qualifications both of the electors and of those elected to the House of Representatives, and to the length of term for which the representatives were to be elected.  These are centrally important considerations for any Constitution that seeks to establish a Federal Government of strictly enumerated powers, to ensure that elected representatives will faithfully reflect the preferences of a majority of their constituents and yet will not be overly tempted to discriminate against vulnerable minorities.  If the People are to govern, then a suitable definition of the People, and how the People are to impact on government, is of crucial importance.

A key circumstance influencing the Convention was recognition that any shift from the existing Confederation to a new Federation inevitably constituted a fundamental challenge to States’ rights, and must be perceived as a threat to the less populous states.  In order to ratify the Constitution, those issues must be addressed effectively by PUBLIUS.

Naturally, therefore, PUBLIUS emphasized the good sense in requiring that the qualifications of the electors would be the same as those required by each State’s own Constitution for the most numerous branch of that State’s legislature.  Of course, this implied that electoral qualifications might vary across the several States.  Yet, individual States could not manipulate the suffrage by simple legislation to gain advantage in the House of Representatives.  If they engaged in high cost constitutional manipulation, they could do so only by imposing upon their own State legislature any inherent disadvantages of such a manipulation.

Inevitably, norms of the day governed the extent of the suffrage.  For the most part, only propertied male citizens qualified.  Non-citizens (which of course included slaves), male citizens without property, and women need not apply.  This restricted the electorate to some twenty-five percent of the adult population.  But remember that the United States was one of only two emerging democracies.  And Britain, albeit without the taint of slavery, similarly limited the suffrage at that time to a suitably-propertied male minority.

The qualifications of the representatives were a different matter.  They were much less clearly defined by the State Constitutions and more susceptible to uniformity.  PUBLIUS defended the proposal by the Convention that a representative must be at least of the age of twenty-five years, must have been seven years a citizen of the United States, must, at the time of the election, be an inhabitant of the State he was to represent, and, during the time of his service, must be in no office under the United States.  This left the door widely open to would-be candidates, including women and persons without property.  Of course, slaves could not be citizens and, therefore, were excluded from candidacy.

The Convention had decided that the House of Representatives should be composed of Members chosen every second year by the electorate.  This was a truly important judgment, defended by PUBLIUS.  The Founders were well aware of a British history, where monarchs not infrequently had failed to call Parliament for several years when threatened by its fractiousness towards their objectives.  So the regularity of the election would avoid any such deviance on the part of fractious States.  They were also aware that some long-lived parliaments had lost significant contact with their electors, and had culminated in widespread corruption and inefficiencies.

A two-year term was deemed appropriate, in that it would maintain a close linkage between individual representatives and the People without imposing an excessive urgency on their deliberations.  The Founders were not disposed to introduce direct democracy into the federal legislature, recognizing its high cost and limited effectiveness in a geographically dispersed country with a rapidly increasing population of potential voters.

With respect to the two-year term, my judgment is that the Founders were correct.  The House of Representatives would become the engine of the legislature and the Senate, with its six-year staggered terms, would become the brake, especially when transient passions were running high.  Sadly, the great expectations of the Founders regarding the linkage between the People and those that they elected to office would be disappointed.

The Founders failed to anticipate the emergence of powerful political parties that would demand loyalty from their members even when such loyalty conflicted with constituents’ interests.  They failed to anticipate the gerrymandering of districts that would provide incumbent re-election probabilities as high as in many dictatorships.  They failed to anticipate the growth of political action groups and other special interests that would flood political campaigns with funding designed to distort election results away from the interests of the People.  They failed to anticipate the willingness of the United States federal courts to loosen the strictly enumerated powers of the Federal Government by inappropriately redefining key Articles of the Constitution designed to limit the range of collective actions that might impact adversely upon the People.  These developments, however, were products of changing circumstances and advancing political acumen unavailable to the Founders in the dying years of the eighteenth century, and at the very beginning of a great experiment in constitutional republicanism.

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Charles K. Rowley, Ph.D. is Duncan Black Professor of Economics at George Mason University and General Director of The Locke Institute in Fairfax, Virginia.  He is the co-author (with Nathanael Smith) of Economic Contractions in the United States: A Failure of Government. The Locke Institute He blogs at



“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”

Federalist No. 51

Federalist No. 54 reminds us of the fact that the United States Constitution was not, and is not, a perfect document. It is a reflection of human nature, and as our founders knew, human beings are not perfect creatures.  Federalist 54 addresses Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution, the Three-Fifths clause. The counting of  human beings as 3/5’s of a person, and the preservation of  the institution of slavery for 20 years, are some of the Constitution’s greatest blemishes.  Although 3/5′s was a compromise, with the ultimate goal being the elimination of slavery, it is still a blemish on a document that is a beacon of liberty for our country and the world.

I was curious where else slavery is mentioned specifically in the Constitution and consulted the Heritage Guide to the Constitution (one of my favorite Constitutional resource books). I found that slavery is also addressed in Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 (Slave Trade); Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 (Fugitive Slave Clause); and Article V (Prohibition on Amendment: Slave Trade).  The Slave Trade clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1) did not allow the federal government to prohibit the slave trade until January 1, 1808.  According to Dr. Mathew Spalding in the Heritage Guide, on that very day, January 1, 1808, Congress passed a prohibition of the slave trade, and President Thomas Jefferson signed it into law.   Although they could not ban slavery at the inception of the Constitution, the founders put a mechanism in place to start the country on that path, and banned it as soon as they could.

Through their humility and understanding of human nature, our founders knew the Constitution was not perfect.  They devised the Amendment process to make corrections, adjustments and refinements, a process not too easy, but also not too difficult, a process Madison describes in Federalist 43:

“It guards equally against that extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults. It, moreover, equally enables the general and the State governments to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side, or on the other.”

One of the great characteristics of Americans is that we are always striving to be better, to improve, and to grow.  Many Amendments to the Constitution reflect this growth.

Although we may not always be proud of every step in our journey, we can be proud that as a country we have made corrections from where we started, that our founders recognized we would need to make corrections, and that a process is in place to continue to refine this brilliant, but human, document.

Good night and God Bless,

Cathy Gillespie

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Federalist No. 65 defends the role of the Senate as the court of trial for impeachments.  It is fascinating that this intuitively judicial function would be delegated to the legislative branch – another example of the intricate checks and balances built into the Constitution, perfectly calibrated to preserve our liberty!

In the impeachment process, there are “checks” even within this check, as the U.S. House “has the sole power of impeachment,” (Article I, Section 2, Clause 5 of the United States Constitution).  In other words, the branch of the legislature closest to the people, the U.S. House, has the power to decide if there is sufficient cause to bring charges of impeachment.  Our founders believed the people should decide (through their U.S. Representatives), if there is sufficient cause for trial to determine if “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” (Article II, Section 4) have possibly taken place.

The power to convict rests with the Senate, however, as the founders believed the great responsibility of impeachment should be shared between the legislative bodies.  The Senate was deemed the wiser, mature, and more stable body, capable of such consequential decisions.

“Where else than in the Senate could have been found a tribunal sufficiently dignified, or sufficiently independent? What other body would be likely to feel CONFIDENCE ENOUGH IN ITS OWN SITUATION, to preserve, unawed and uninfluenced, the necessary impartiality between an INDIVIDUAL accused, and the REPRESENTATIVES OF THE PEOPLE, HIS ACCUSERS?”

If the founders had made the impeachment process too easy, it could fall victim to the political whims of the day; too hard, and the people would not be able to remove those who violate the public trust. Much like the amendment process which seems to have found the perfect balance between “that extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults,” (Federalist No. 43), the impeachment process  is designed with the perfect equilibrium between too facile, and too complex.  As Troy Kickler notes, of the seventeen Americans impeached since 1789, only seven have been convicted.

As we journey slowly through the Constitution, with the Federalist Papers as our guiding light, it is awe inspiring to uncover layer after layer of checks, balances, and built in safeguards for our liberty.  And to think this beautiful, delicate governmental structure that so ably protects our freedom was designed and agreed upon in a little over three months, in a hot room in Philadelphia!  George Washington called it “a little short of a miracle.” With over 200 years of hindsight, and in-depth study, it becomes more and more apparent that a true miracle occurred.

Good night and God Bless!

Cathy Gillespie

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010