Thursday, November 29, 2012

Article One - The Lawmakers

Continuing the series on the Constitution, we left off last time with the Preamble.  An attentive reader (okay, my sister) asked what exactly it means "to secure the blessings of liberty".  A very good question, and one I think we have to take back to the Declaration of Independence.

You will recall that Jefferson wrote in the Declaration: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."  Remember that the Declaration was in large part a list of complaints against King George and the colonists were declaring that the actions and attitudes of the king were antithetical to liberty and self--governance.  This, to me, seems to be the "securing the blessings of liberty" idea - that true liberty cannot spring forth from royal decrees or indeed from any system in which the people - the citizens - themselves have no say in their governance. 

It is with that idea in mind, I believe, that the concept of government of, by, and for the people became a reality with the Constitution, specifically in Article I, which we will now explore.

Article I - The Legislative Branch.

The founders brilliantly conceived this system, the bicameral setup, in order to strike a balance between large and small states - one chamber representing the population in proportion, the other representing the states equally.  This ensured that there would be no "tyranny of the majority" in the House, nor would there be disproportionate power given to the smaller states by their equal representation in the Senate.

Section 1 simply states that all legislative powers belong to the legislative branch.  It seems obvious, but I believe they were making a statement against executive fiat (such as a royal proclamation).  In more modern times, we see presidents issuing Executive Orders more and more often, and I have to believe that such orders are contrary to what the Founders had in mind - that is, laws, or at least regulations, that have not been approved by a legislative action.  Likewise, we see judicial decisions carry the force of law, rather than merely interpreting the law.  I doubt the Founders would be pleased by either of these developments.

Section 2 sets the framework for the House.  Elections every two years, to ensure the best possible representation of the will of the people; minimum age of 25; the "Three-Fifths Compromise" (later modified by the 14th Amendment), counting slaves and Indians as three-fifths of a person for census and representational purposes (on the surface, this seems terribly racist, but it in fact likely helped speed the end of slavery - perhaps a topic for another blog some time); and the original numbers of representatives for each state.

Section 3 addresses the Senate. Senators were to be elected by the state legislatures (later changed to direct election by the 17th Amendment); minimum age of 30; the Vice President of the United States is President of the Senate, but only votes in case of a tie; and the Senate's power of impeachment.

Section 4 sets the prescribed time and manner of meetings of the two bodies (later changed by the 20th Amendment)

Section 5 allows each chamber to make its own rules and directs them to keep a journal of all proceedings, to be made available to the public (The Congressional Record).  It also allows for each house to set rules for quorums, discipline, recesses and adjournments.

Section 6 addresses compensation for Congressional members (modified by the 27th Amendment - the amendment that took over 200 years to ratify.  Draw your own conclusions about that!). This section also directs that any member may not hold any other federal office at the same time, preventing conflicts of interest.

Section 7 directs that all revenue bills originate in the House.  Presumably, this was to keep the spending of the peoples' money as close to the people as possible, and as accountable to the people as possible.  This section also addresses the presidential veto and override provisions.  Perhaps most importantly, this section directs that all votes be recorded, so that the people may know how their representatives and senators voted on any and all issues.

Section 8 lays out specific powers of Congress, including: taxation, minting and borrowing of money, regulating interstate and international commerce, naturalization rules, post offices, patents and copyrights, raising a military, declarations of war, and exercising legislative authority over the seat of the U.S. government (the then-yet-to-be-decided-upon District of Columbia).

Section 9 then goes on to impose certain limits on Congress, such as prohibitions on ex-post-facto laws or bills of attainder; no right to writs of habeas corpus shall be suspended; no direct (income) tax to be laid (changed by the 16th Amendment); no titles of nobility are to be awarded by the country and no agent of the government shall accept any such title, except as allowed by Congress.

Section 10 prohibits the states from certain powers, including: no entering treaties; no coining of state-specific money; no import or export duties; no independent declarations of war.

Well, this was a rather lengthy blog, but let's be honest - the Legislative Branch is large and complicated (and we might argue that it is far larger and more complicated than ever intended, or than it needs to be).  The fact remains, though, that the concept was brilliant.  The people and the states getting equal representation, and neither chamber holding power over the other.  Despite the problems we may see in our system, especially these days, the format still works.  It has served us more or less well for 225 years, and I've yet to see a better system, either in theory or in practice.

Next up: The Executive Branch.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In The Beginning...

I'm sure that all of you regular readers have done your homework by now and have read through your own personal copies of the Constitution.  For those of you more casual readers, in case you haven't done so, don't worry - I'm not going to reprint it all here!  I have, however, come to the realization that for a blog about the Constitution, I've actually written comparatively little about the document itself - its structure and content and meaning.  So, beginning with this post, and continuing until we've covered it all, I want to go through the Constitution, section by section, just to give us all a reminder of what is in it, and just as importantly, what is not.

Today, we'll just focus on the Preamble.  I'm sure many of you, like me, had to memorize this in junior high history class and recite it to the teacher in order to earn a good grade for this part of the curriculum (thank you, Mr. Marson!).  Even if we had little understanding of words like "posterity", it was a nice way to introduce at least the basic idea behind the Constitution.  For refresher purposes:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish
Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the
general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do
ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

So, what does this little paragraph mean?  Let's look at it, a little bit at a time:

"We the People of the United States" - this is who is making it happen.  Not a king or emperor, not an already-established government or parliament.  Not some upper-class, out-of touch group of aristocrats.  We, the people, as represented by those chosen to participate in the Constitutional Convention.

"In order to form a more perfect Union" - notice, it's not "to form a perfect union", merely "a more perfect union", on other words, better than what we have now.  The original mission of the convention was to update and modify the Articles of Confederation.  They knew that the Articles (like the Articles of Association before it) were inadequate for the maintenance of the fledgling nation.  Ultimately, of course, they scrapped that idea and wrote an entirely new plan.

"Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty" - they are laying out what they believe are the fundamental responsibilities of a national, or federal, government.  They see its role as limited and general, with very few specific things it can or should do.  Certainly, each of these items can be interpreted to mean much larger things.  For example, FDR's New Deal or LBJ's Great Society can be seen, perhaps, as falling under the "promote the general welfare" clause, though I suspect the Founders did not envision that phrase to necessarily mean an enormous "welfare state".  Likewise, "ensure domestic tranquility" can be seen by some as authorizing an overbearing police state, if condition warrant, though thankfully, such people are rare.  And "justice" means many things to many people - is it "economic justice" (a popular notion these days, as it was during the Depression), and how does one define economic justice?  Or is it a more general notion of fair play and equal protection under the law?  Finally, what does "secure the blessings of liberty" actually mean?  Is it a combination of all the previous phrases, or is it something more esoteric?

"For ourselves and our posterity" - the Founders were looking forward.  Their hope, though they could not be sure of it at the time, was that the new nation would survive and prosper long after they were gone.  Thankfully, they were right!

"Do ordain and establish this Constitution for The United States of America" - again, emphasizing the name of this new nation and declaring it in fact established as the Constitution is ratified.

Coming up - the Articles of the Constitution.  Stay tuned.

Monday, November 5, 2012

It's a Miracle!

Ronald Reagan takes the Oath of Office,
while outgoing President Cater looks on.
 "To a few of us here today, this is a solemn and most momentous occasion; and yet, in the history of our Nation, it is a commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle."  
- Ronald Reagan, January 20, 1981.

In the history of humankind, this orderly, peaceful transfer of power we've come to take for granted in the United States really is borderline miraculous.  The first example was following the election of 1800, a bitterly contested race that ended up in the House of Representatives for a tie-breaking vote (see previous blog entry).  An incumbent (John Adams) lost the vote to a political rival (Thomas Jefferson) and the rival took office without bloodshed, a coup de etat, or violence of any sort (Aaron Burr's killing of Alexander Hamilton in a duel years later aside).  Power was not handed down by heredity or any sort of divine edict.  The people of the nation voted and the Executive Branch of the government changed hands.  It was considered a miracle at the time, as such a shift of power in so peaceful a manner was all but unheard of.  

Indeed today, I venture to guess that the majority of the world's nations have yet to experience this miracle for themselves.  Many nations identify as at least nominal democracies, but truly do not have free and fair elections (Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Russia, much of Africa, and Saddam-era Iraq come to mind right away).  Why is this?  What makes us (and at least most of the developed world) so successful in this free transfer of power?  Is it our Constitution?  Our history of encouraging and expecting fair play?  I'm sure someone far more qualified than I can help explain all the social, economic and political issues that leave so many other countries behind in that regard, but for now, let us appreciate the success we've had here.

I write this on Election Eve, November 5, 2012.  In just over 24 hours, we will know if we have a new president or if the incumbent will serve four more years.  Regardless of the outcome, we will have a peaceful aftermath (threats of riots and civil unrest by fringe groups aside).  If the president loses, the transition will start almost immediately, preparing the president-elect to smoothly take office.  If the president wins, the challenger will almost certainly bow out gracefully and accept the will of the electorate, as has been our tradition (the 2000 election aside).  

I also write this, conveniently, from the State of Virginia, beloved home of this blog's namesake, James Madison (and also of a couple other interesting guys named Washington and Jefferson, to name a couple).  Tomorrow, I will be watching the Electoral College map and election returns from Connecticut (home of Roger Sherman - see earlier blog about him), right on the Massachusetts border (home of Adams).  I feel perhaps a little keener sense of history being in this part of the country on such a momentous occasion, and except for being home on election day, I think there are few better places to be.  

Let us, then, celebrate our representative system of government, fair elections (allegations of voter fraud aside for now), and the continued tradition of peaceful transfer of political power - unique in history when it began in 1801, and still unfortunately rare today.  God bless America!