Thursday, April 15, 2010

Everything old is new again, part 1

That phrase comes to mind when pondering this op-ed:  Congress Becomes Madison's "Overbearing Majority."  (Hat tip to Instapundit.)


Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx, Mark---this is helpful. A lot more than the very disappointing discussion over at the usually worthy Volokh blog.

What the Georgia legislature was trying to get at, I think [and they did it poorly as well] is that a "republic" implies much more than majoritarianism, which would be a strict reading of "democracy." [The introduction in the Volokh discussion of "representative" also gummed things up.]

A republic requires and effort toward consensus, hence the Electoral College, and even moreso the Senate: the smaller states are not at the mercy of the larger ones, and indeed in the Senate have equal say.

So too, Madison [Federalist 51 & 52, as I recall] wants a tempering counterbalance of the sentiments of the day he expects from the House.

A key goal of the Framers was to create a Senate differently constituted from the House so it would be less subject to popular passions and impulses. "The use of the Senate," wrote James Madison in Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, "is to consist in its proceedings with more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." An oft-quoted story about the "coolness" of the Senate involves George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who was in France during the Constitutional Convention. Upon his return, Jefferson visited Washington and asked why the Convention delegates had created a Senate. "Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?" asked Washington. "To cool it," said Jefferson. "Even so," responded Washington, "we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it."

For the record, I have a feeling that last story's a myth, tho. Seems too tight and trite, even if it does convey a useful truth.

[Our republic also places limits on majoritarianism via the Constitution, although I doubt the Obamacare legislation will be found unconstitutional in any significant way.]

But the disposition towards consensus instead of mere majority has a long history as the American political ethos. Social Security, Medicare and the Civil Rights Acts passed with a significant number of votes from both parties. Indeed, this very blog had a behind-the-scenes controversy recently, and the "winning" side was actually in the minority.

Good faith requires such things, and good faith is essential to the smooth running of a republic. This is the essential truth that was lost in the recent Congressional controversy. The parties just can't take turns steamrolling each other---that threatens stability.

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