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.

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