Wednesday, January 04, 2012

The Constitution: The Legislative Branch

Today we continue my bloviation on the subject of the Constitution by looking at the first of the three branches of the government it established: the Legislative Branch.

It's no accident that, of the three branches of the government the Founders organized, the Constitution addresses the Legislative branch first - Article 1, Section 1 says simply:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.

The idea of a bicameral (that is, consisting of two parts) legislature was a result of compromise (imagine that!). One of the original problems faced by the Founders was that of the allocation of representation in the new congress. Large, wealthy, populous states believed they deserved more representation than smaller, less populous ones; the smaller states, for their part, wanted to make sure they weren’t steamrolled by their larger neighbors. The compromise was a two-chamber legislature in which all states were equally represented in the upper house (the Senate) and represented on the basis of population in the lower house (the House of Representatives). The Constitution also based representation on the results of a census to be conducted at ten-year intervals (Article 1, Section 2) ... and this, as it happens, led to another problem down the road - the designation of the boundaries of Congressional districts. We'll talk more about that in subsequent posts, and if you want to play a game that lets you design your own Congressional districts, you can refer to the links in my earlier post here.

Having had recent negative experience of rule by a king, the Founders were also concerned that they not create an equivalent ruling figure, able to govern by personal whim without being answerable to the people. Thus, their draft constitution gave most of the actual governing power to the legislative branch ... Sections 7, 8, and 9 of Article 1 lay out the specific responsibilities of Congress, which include the power to declare war, ratify treaties, collect taxes (yes, they knew taxes were necessary!), and approve the expenditure of the government's funds.

The draft constitution also set up the terms of office for the members of the two chambers. Elections were staggered so as to keep wholesale disruption in membership to a minimum and ensure that representatives were made to stand for reelection at intervals, giving the people an opportunity periodically to ... well ... throw the bums out.

This brings us, logically, to the idea of term limits - an idea that rears its head frequently when the electorate gets irritated with powerful individual members of Congress. Are term limits a good idea? Yes and no. Yes, because they keep elected officials from homesteading and ensure an infusion of fresh blood and new ideas at regular intervals. No, because – ultimately – the voters have the power to impose term limits by voting out representatives they don’t like when they come up to the end of their terms of office. Put bluntly, if you keep reelecting the same bums, you have only yourself to blame.

I'll have more to say about the Legislative Branch, and its relation to the Executive and Judicial Branches, in subsequent posts ... for now, this will have to do as an introduction to the topic. Hopefully, it's given you a bit of insight you might have forgotten since your high school civics classes (if you even had them) and helped you begin to understand how the legislature envisioned by the Founders might have begun to change from this ...

to this ...

Tomorrow, we'll continue the discussion with an examination of the Executive Branch. Y'all come, hear!

Have a good day. Be an informed citizen. More thoughts tomorrow.



eViL pOp TaRt said...

With regard to the compromise of the bicameral legislature, this has pros and cons. A pro is that those of us living in smaller states (e.g., LA, GA, VT) are not bulldozed into being dominated by undesirable trends from larger states (specifically, CA and NY!). On the other hand, it complicates state-making because very unpopulous states are almost our equivalent of rotten boroughs. Does DC deserve statehood? How about the Alaska panhandle?

Some state governorships are single-term, for what it's worth.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

If DC and PR gets statehood, that will increase the number of ass clowns in the Senate and House by four, each. I suppose they could package the statehood bill as the No Ass Clown Left Behind bill.

Mike said...

DC does not deserve statehood. If anything the ground should be given back to the states it came from and the city divided into North and South DC.

Duckbutt said...

Texas was admitted to the Union with a proviso that it could subdivide into as many as five different states. Are we prepared for TEN Texas senators?