Previous essays in this series explored why the Constitution is ineffective at restraining federal officials today, and illustrated how members of the present generation must come to view their relationship to the Constitution if it is to be of service in effectively limiting federal overreach. This series now concludes by highlighting two largely untried and fundamentally different approaches to restoring constitutional constraints today; issue-based legislative accountability, and the calling of a convention of states to amend the United States Constitution.

A Convention for Our Time

When we survey the Constitution today, it is increasingly difficult to picture it as the splendid banner raised by Washington and his fellow delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Nor does it today call to mind the iron chains described by Thomas Jefferson when he spoke of binding men down from mischief “by the chains of the Constitution.” Instead, the Constitution hangs frayed and tattered today, a silent witness to more than two centuries of flying above our nation’s capital. Its form has changed very little since 1787, but much of the life has gone out of it. Some today have begun to ask if it isn’t time for another convention—and in no state is this idea greeted with greater enthusiasm than here in Alaska. Holding a convention would open the door to a whole series of amendments, which could add new thread to a tattered banner, and in so doing breathe new life into the Constitution. Even so, when the idea of a second convention first began to gain traction in 1788, James Madison argued that the timing of any future conventions should be chosen only with great care. Whether the timing is right for another convention is an important question, and one to which any serious student of the Constitution should give careful consideration.

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Previous essays in this series explored why the Constitution is ineffective at restraining federal officials today, and illustrated how members of the present generation must come to view their relationship to the Constitution if it is to be of service in effectively limiting federal overreach. The most recent essay highlighted current efforts to amend the Constitution through an Article V convention. The series now concludes with another largely untried weapon in the citizen’s arsenal today; issue-based legislative accountability.

A Deaf Congress

In 2014, researchers at Princeton University released the results of an exhaustive study that analyzed more than twenty years of federal policy. The study evaluated various actors and the effect that they had on public policy. After examining literally thousands of laws and how those laws came to be made, they were forced to admit that ‘the number of American voters for or against an idea has literally no impact on the likelihood that Congress will make it law.’ Specifically, they concluded that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that the level of political sincerity possessed by the average American today is miniscule, near zero, statistically insignificant.

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The Alleged Tendency of the New Plan to Elevate the Few at the Expense of the Many Considered in Connection with Representation
From the New York Packet.
Tuesday, February 19, 1788.

Author: Alexander Hamilton or James Madison

To the People of the State of New York:

THE THIRD charge against the House of Representatives is, that it will be taken from that class of citizens which will have least sympathy with the mass of the people, and be most likely to aim at an ambitious sacrifice of the many to the aggrandizement of the few. Of all the objections which have been framed against the federal Constitution, this is perhaps the most extraordinary.

Whilst the objection itself is levelled against a pretended oligarchy, the principle of it strikes at the very root of republican government. The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government. The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various. The most effectual one, is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people. Let me now ask what circumstance there is in the constitution of the House of Representatives that violates the principles of republican government, or favors the elevation of the few on the ruins of the many? Let me ask whether every circumstance is not, on the contrary, strictly conformable to these principles, and scrupulously impartial to the rights and pretensions of every class and description of citizens? Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, more than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscurity and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States. They are to be the same who exercise the right in every State of electing the corresponding branch of the legislature of the State. Who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. No qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession is permitted to fetter the judgement or disappoint the inclination of the people. If we consider the situation of the men on whom the free suffrages of their fellow-citizens may confer the representative trust, we shall find it involving every security which can be devised or desired for their fidelity to their constituents. In the first place, as they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements. In the second place, they will enter into the public service under circumstances which cannot fail to produce a temporary affection at least to their constituents. There is in every breast a sensibility to marks of honor, of favor, of esteem, and of confidence, which, apart from all considerations of interest, is some pledge for grateful and benevolent returns.

Ingratitude is a common topic of declamation against human nature; and it must be confessed that instances of it are but too frequent and flagrant, both in public and in private life. But the universal and extreme indignation which it inspires is itself a proof of the energy and prevalence of the contrary sentiment.

In the third place, those ties which bind the representative to his constituents are strengthened by motives of a more selfish nature. His pride and vanity attach him to a form of government which favors his pretensions and gives him a share in its honors and distinctions. Whatever hopes or projects might be entertained by a few aspiring characters, it must generally happen that a great proportion of the men deriving their advancement from their influence with the people, would have more to hope from a preservation of the favor, than from innovations in the government subversive of the authority of the people. All these securities, however, would be found very insufficient without the restraint of frequent elections. Hence, in the fourth place, the House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people. Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised; there forever to remain unless a faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to a renewal of it. I will add, as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together. It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments, of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny. If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it. 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 any thing but liberty. Such will be the relation between the House of Representatives and their constituents. Duty, gratitude, interest, ambition itself, are the chords by which they will be bound to fidelity and sympathy with the great mass of the people.

It is possible that these may all be insufficient to control the caprice and wickedness of man. But are they not all that government will admit, and that human prudence can devise? Are they not the genuine and the characteristic means by which republican government provides for the liberty and happiness of the people? Are they not the identical means on which every State government in the Union relies for the attainment of these important ends? What then are we to understand by the objection which this paper has combated? What are we to say to the men who profess the most flaming zeal for republican government, yet boldly impeach the fundamental principle of it; who pretend to be champions for the right and the capacity of the people to choose their own rulers, yet maintain that they will prefer those only who will immediately and infallibly betray the trust committed to them? Were the objection to be read by one who had not seen the mode prescribed by the Constitution for the choice of representatives, he could suppose nothing less than that some unreasonable qualification of property was annexed to the right of suffrage; or that the right of eligibility was limited to persons of particular families or fortunes; or at least that the mode prescribed by the State constitutions was in some respect or other, very grossly departed from. We have seen how far such a supposition would err, as to the two first points. Nor would it, in fact, be less erroneous as to the last. The only difference discoverable between the two cases is, that each representative of the United States will be elected by five or six thousand citizens; whilst in the individual States, the election of a representative is left to about as many hundreds. Will it be pretended that this difference is sufficient to justify an attachment to the State governments, and an abhorrence to the federal government? If this be the point on which the objection turns, it deserves to be examined. Is it supported by REASON?

This cannot be said, without maintaining that five or six thousand citizens are less capable of choosing a fit representative, or more liable to be corrupted by an unfit one, than five or six hundred. Reason, on the contrary, assures us, that as in so great a number a fit representative would be most likely to be found, so the choice would be less likely to be diverted from him by the intrigues of the ambitious or the ambitious or the bribes of the rich. Is the CONSEQUENCE from this doctrine admissible? If we say that five or six hundred citizens are as many as can jointly exercise their right of suffrage, must we not deprive the people of the immediate choice of their public servants, in every instance where the administration of the government does not require as many of them as will amount to one for that number of citizens? Is the doctrine warranted by FACTS? It was shown in the last paper, that the real representation in the British House of Commons very little exceeds the proportion of one for every thirty thousand inhabitants. Besides a variety of powerful causes not existing here, and which favor in that country the pretensions of rank and wealth, no person is eligible as a representative of a county, unless he possess real estate of the clear value of six hundred pounds sterling per year; nor of a city or borough, unless he possess a like estate of half that annual value. To this qualification on the part of the county representatives is added another on the part of the county electors, which restrains the right of suffrage to persons having a freehold estate of the annual value of more than twenty pounds sterling, according to the present rate of money. Notwithstanding these unfavorable circumstances, and notwithstanding some very unequal laws in the British code, it cannot be said that the representatives of the nation have elevated the few on the ruins of the many. But we need not resort to foreign experience on this subject. Our own is explicit and decisive. The districts in New Hampshire in which the senators are chosen immediately by the people, are nearly as large as will be necessary for her representatives in the Congress. Those of Massachusetts are larger than will be necessary for that purpose; and those of New York still more so.

In the last State the members of Assembly for the cities and counties of New York and Albany are elected by very nearly as many voters as will be entitled to a representative in the Congress, calculating on the number of sixty-five representatives only. It makes no difference that in these senatorial districts and counties a number of representatives are voted for by each elector at the same time. If the same electors at the same time are capable of choosing four or five representatives, they cannot be incapable of choosing one. Pennsylvania is an additional example. Some of her counties, which elect her State representatives, are almost as large as her districts will be by which her federal representatives will be elected. The city of Philadelphia is supposed to contain between fifty and sixty thousand souls. It will therefore form nearly two districts for the choice of federal representatives. It forms, however, but one county, in which every elector votes for each of its representatives in the State legislature. And what may appear to be still more directly to our purpose, the whole city actually elects a SINGLE MEMBER for the executive council. This is the case in all the other counties of the State. Are not these facts the most satisfactory proofs of the fallacy which has been employed against the branch of the federal government under consideration? Has it appeared on trial that the senators of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York, or the executive council of Pennsylvania, or the members of the Assembly in the two last States, have betrayed any peculiar disposition to sacrifice the many to the few, or are in any respect less worthy of their places than the representatives and magistrates appointed in other States by very small divisions of the people? But there are cases of a stronger complexion than any which I have yet quoted.

One branch of the legislature of Connecticut is so constituted that each member of it is elected by the whole State. So is the governor of that State, of Massachusetts, and of this State, and the president of New Hampshire. I leave every man to decide whether the result of any one of these experiments can be said to countenance a suspicion, that a diffusive mode of choosing representatives of the people tends to elevate traitors and to undermine the public liberty.


Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School


Article II, Section 1, Clause 3


3:  The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not lie an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; a quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two-thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice-President.

When determining the mode for selecting the President, the Framers were faced with a conundrum.  The President was to be a leader who could act with energy and dispatch.  Yet he was to maintain his constitutional pedigree as a republican, and he must exercise wisdom and judgment.  It was hoped that the President would be, as Henry Lee said in his eulogy of George Washington, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  But the president was not to gain that position as an American Caesar, a man whose immense talents and genius also proved to be fatal to that ancient republic that Revolutionary War-era Americans so admired.

Perhaps even worse, because so much more likely in the ordinary case, would be the man who, lacking the genius of a Caesar, would gain office through “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity,” as Hamilton sneered in Federalist 68.  To Americans of the time, “popular” suggested a certain cravenness and lack of principle.  Such a person would do what advanced his political standing, rather than what was best for the country.  As Plato long ago warned in his description of the demagogue (Greek for “leader of the people”), this was a particular flaw of democracy.  Such a man was most likely to emerge in a system that placed no electoral barrier between the mass of the people and him.

Hamilton’s response during the Philadelphia Convention was a complex multi-layered proposal of election by electors selected by regional electors themselves elected by some class of voters.  Such a convoluted system resembles an electoral Rube Goldberg-contraption. However, the historically well-read Framers had the experience of other republics from which to draw, and Hamilton’s system was a simplified (if that can be imagined) variant of the election of the Doge of Venice.  A system of electors avoids the democratic pitfalls of election of unqualified flatterers by a people corrupted by promises of favors or bedazzled by a façade of handsome features and soaring, but empty, rhetoric.  But, without more, election by a council of the few does not avoid the oligarchic pitfalls and factionalism inherent in any cohesive and organized group, characteristics Madison warned against in The Federalist.  Hamilton’s proposal would increase the number of participants and disperse their decisions.  This made it more difficult for a candidate to gain office by corruption and intrigue through a small and cohesive faction.

The Framers did not go along with the particulars of Hamilton’s proposal.  But, after making the easy call against direct popular election and rejecting, as well, election by Congress or by the state legislatures, they settled on a system similar to the one proposed by Hamilton. In the process, they resolved several practical problems.  Every efficient electoral system has to provide for a means of nominating and then electing candidates. Moreover, civil disturbances over what is often a politically heated process must be avoided. There must be no taint of corruption. The candidate elected must be qualified.

As to the first, the Electoral College would, in many cases, nominate multiple candidates. Electors would be chosen as the legislatures of the states would direct. Though the practice of popular voting for electors spread, not until South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860 did appointment by the legislatures end everywhere. Once selected, the electors’ strong loyalties to their respective states likely would cause the electors to select a “favorite son” candidate. To prevent a multiplicity of candidates based on state residency, electors had to cast one of the two votes allotted to each for someone from another state. It was expected that several regional candidates would emerge under that process. There likely would be no single majority electoral vote recipient, at least not after George Washington. In effect, the Electoral College would nominate the candidates.  The actual election of the President then would devolve to the House of Representatives, fostering the blending and overlapping of powers that Madison extolled in Federalist 51.  The winner of the House vote would be President, the runner-up would be Vice-President.

That last step corresponded to the Framers’ experience with the election of the British prime minister and cabinet, and with the practice of several states. However, consistent with the state-oriented structure of American federalism, such election in the House had to come through a majority of state delegations, not individual Congressmen. Though modified slightly by the Twelfth Amendment as a result of the deadlock of 1800, this process is still in place.

As John Jay writes in Federalist 64, the Constitution’s system would likely select those most qualified to be President. Augmented by the Constitution’s age requirement for President, the electors are not “liable to be deceived by those brilliant appearances of genius and patriotism, which, like transient meteors, sometimes mislead as well as dazzle.”

Having the voters select a group of electors, rather than the President directly, would also calm the political waters. By making that election something other than an immediate vote about particular candidates, the process would encourage reflection and deliberation by voters about the capacity for reasoned judgment of the electors chosen. The smaller number of wise electors, in turn, would exercise that judgment free from popular passion.

Hamilton and others assured Americans that corruption and the influence of faction would be avoided by the temporary and limited duty of the electors, the disqualification of federal office holders to serve, the large number of electors, and the fact that they would meet in separate states at the same time rather than in one grand national body. Presumably, those protections fall away when the House elects the President. But Congressmen have to worry about re-election and, thus, want to avoid corrupt bargains that are odious to the voters.

The system never quite worked as intended.  After Washington’s election, the nomination of Presidents was informally taken over by factions in Congress, in a process dubbed the Congressional caucus system.  That system immediately caused the untenable situation of a President (Adams) and a Vice-President (Jefferson) from opposing factions.  The debacle of the House-controlled election of 1800 brought about by the intra-factional rivalry of Jefferson and Burr placed the young American experiment in self-government in mortal danger. That, in turn, brought limited reform through the 12th Amendment.

Though the constitutional shell remains, much of the system operates differently than the Framers thought. The reason is the evolution of the modern programmatic party, that bane of good republicans, which has replaced state loyalties with party loyalties. The Framers thought they had dealt adequately with the influence of factions (political groups that focus on a particular issue or coalesce around a charismatic leader) in their finely-tuned system. As modern party government was just emerging in Britain and—in contrast to temporary and shifting political factions—unknown in the states, the Framers designed the election process unprepared for such parties.

Today, the nominating function is performed by political parties, while election is, in practice, by the voters. Elections by the House are still possible, if there is a strong regional third-party candidate. But the dominance of the two parties (which are, in part, coalitions of factions) suppresses competition, and the last time there was a reasonable possibility of electoral deadlock was in 1968, when Alabama Governor George C. Wallace took 46 electoral votes. Mere independent national candidacies, such as that of Ross Perot in 1992, have roughly similar levels of support in all states and are unlikely to siphon electoral votes and block the usual process.

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. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums.  Read more from Professor Knipprath at: .

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Federalist No. 49 – Guest Blogger: Dr. Colleen Sheehan, Villanova University

James Madison wrote Federalist 49 in part as a response to Thomas Jefferson’s idea that a constitutional convention should be called whenever one of the departments of government oversteps its delegated constitutional authority.

Madison argued that this was a bad idea for five reasons:  1) the proposal doesn’t cover the case in which two departments combine against a third  2) routinely involving the people in rewriting the Constitution would reduce the veneration the citizens have for their laws and government, thereby destabilizing the polity  3) frequent appeals to the people’s fundamental authority would excite their passions and disturb public tranquility  4) if the usurpation of power was instigated by the legislative branch (which is the most likely scenario), it is probably these same men who would be elected by the people to the convention, since they are the public figures most familiar to the people – that is, they have the best name recognition and the most influence, which is how they got elected in the first place  5) if the people didn’t choose their legislators to attend the convention – perhaps because the usurpation of power by some of them was so flagrant – the choice of convention delegates would nonetheless be conducted in a turbulent atmosphere of partisan politics.

In the last case, Madison argued, it would be “the passions, therefore, not the reason, of the public [that] would sit in judgment.”  But this is the exact opposite of how good popular government should work.  According to Madison, in a well-constructed republic the passions of the public will be controlled and regulated by the government; in turn, the government will be controlled and regulated by the reason of the public.

It is important not to misconstrue Madison’s argument against frequent appeals to the people in this essay.  He opposed frequent appeals to the people in their most sovereign capacity – which is what constitutional conventions represent. His claim is that convening a convention to change the Constitution every time there is an abuse of power by politicians is not the best or even, generally, a smart solution.  Given that Madison was already a seasoned political leader (albeit only 36 years old) and a realist about human nature, he knew that this would mean a lot of conventions!  He also knew that asking the people to reconsider and revise fundamental law on a chronic basis would agitate and destabilize public opinion, which is the very foundation of government and the effective rule of law.

It is important to note that Madison did not argue for a blanket rejection of an appeal to the fundamental authority of the people; indeed, he insisted that a path to constitutional change must be kept open to the people, to be tread on extraordinary occasions.  This is of course the purpose of Article V of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes the constitutional amendment process. Moreover, his discussion of reverence for the laws should not be interpreted to mean that the people ought to venerate rather than vigilantly watch over their government.  In fact, in Federalist 57 he will stress the importance of the vigilant spirit of the people in restraining government and safeguarding liberty.  In the 49th essay, however, Madison is warning his fellow citizens that we should not be unrealistic about the sway of reason in politics.  Since most people are not disinterested or dispassionate philosophers, he implies here what he teaches throughout The Federalist: the achievement of reasonable and just public decisions is going to take substantial time and the hard work of communication and public deliberation.  Essentially, Madison is saying, let’s be careful not to circumvent these speed bumps, which are constructed for our own safety.  Let’s not be impetuous and race headlong at a dangerous pace.  Slow and steady wins the republican race.

Colleen Sheehan is Professor of Political Science at Villanova University and Director of the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the Study of Free Institutions and the Public Good.


Thursday, July 15th, 2010

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.”

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


Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Greetings from Mt. Vernon, Virginia!

Thank you to Professor Kyle Scott for soaring to 50,000 feet and giving us the aerial view of Hamilton’s important point in Federalist 61!  I was in the weeds, struggling to make sense of where and when elections should be held, and the most important point of this paper sailed right over my head until I read Professor Scott’s essay.

Federalist 61 gives us an important insight and specific example of the founders’ view and intention of the construction of the United States Constitution:  broad principles outlined that provide a structure and framework to guide the specifics of future legislation as time and events require.

Our founders had great wisdom as to what is appropriate for the Congress to decide, the specific powers that should be delegated to the federal government, where the federal government’s limits are, and what needed to be carefully spelled out and guarded in the Constitution.  Reading back through Federalist Papers 52-61, the founders gave Congress many powers when it came to elections: deciding the time of elections, the power to modify election law, even the power to alter the total number of U.S. Representatives.  These are all powers Publius argues are “safe for the legislature to decide.” The important guiding principles, such as the frequency of elections, and who may vote (broadened with Amendments, thanks to the “genius of the people”) are safely embedded in the Constitution.

In Federalist 51, Publius writes:

In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this:  you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Giving the government any power over the laws affecting the election of its own members is a tricky proposition.  The founders’ carefully crafted system of checks and balances, including “THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE,” (Federalist No. 22) have preserved our liberty for over 200 years.

Let us not forget the words of Federalist No. 60 regarding the ultimate “check” of the people:

“Would they not fear that citizens, not less tenacious than conscious of their rights, would flock from the remote extremes of their respective States to the places of election, to overthrow their tyrants, and to substitute men who would be disposed to avenge the violated majesty of the people?”

Looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts and comments today!!

Stay cool!

Cathy Gillespie