August 10, 2009

WaPo Health Care Hissy Fit

In a profoundly irritating and pouty article today in the Washington Post, Alec MacGillis demonstrates his lack of understanding of the Constitution of the United States, specifically with respect to the beauty and intelligence of it's design. MacGillis asks the question "In the Senate, Small States Wield Outsize Power. Is This What the Founders Had in Mind?"

YES!!! IT IS!!!!

He poses the following;

Wonder why President Obama is having a hard time enacting his agenda after sweeping to victory and with large congressional majorities on his side? Look to the Senate, the chamber designed to thwart popular will.

There is much grousing on the left about the filibuster, the threat of which has taken such hold that routine bills now need 60 votes. Getting less attention is the undemocratic character of the Senate itself.

Why, for example, have even Democratic senators been resistant on health-care reform? It might be because so many of the key players represent so few of the voters who carried Obama to victory -- and so few of the nation's uninsured. The Senate Finance Committee's "Gang of Six" that is drafting health-care legislation that may shape the final deal -- without a public insurance option -- represents six states that are among the least populous in the country: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Maine, New Mexico and Iowa.

MacGillis in his article ironically entitled "Gangs of D.C.", goes on to enumerate the background of how the structure was arrived at. But regurgitating history means you know the 'what', but it does not equate to the 'why' of the situation.

Now let me explain, since clearly he doesn't get it, that this is EXACTLY what the framers had in mind, whether it was achieved intentionally or accidentally. The founding fathers were afraid of two things that posed a particularly acute danger to individual liberty; the tyranny of government and the potential for mob rule, or the tyranny of the minority or individual by the majority. The entire framework of the Constitution was designed to prevent these things. It's not surprising, coming from a nation founded on a revolution against the tyranny of a distant government body.

In that regard, the role of the Senate was to accomplish both goals. The legislative branch, distinct from the judicial and executive branches, served as a check on executive power. But eh framers took the separation one step further. By having a bicameral legislative branch (i.e. Congress and Senate), the framers were able to " restrain, if possible, the fury of democracy." (Edmund Randolph).

What is meant by that, is the other point in the reason the Senate is set up the way it is - preventing a majority tyranny over the minority. The Senate had 3 distinct tools to curb to an overzealous majority say as an example, outlawing Asian immigrants (a minority) being allowed property rights because that's what the people wanted. Democracy sometimes requires that the majority does not get it's way. The reason being that the majority can easily slip into forcing the minority into a position of having unequal rights. Liberty is an essential ingredient for a democracy. You can't have real liberty if someone else has more liberty than you. In other words, the role of the Senate is to protect the free people of America from themselves. Yes it's paternalistic, but it's a necessary evil.

What about those three curbs?

(1) The Senators had terms that were significantly different from Congressional Representatives
(2) The Senate, until the 17th Amendment in 1913, was an unelected body - Senators were appointed by the State Legislatures.
(3) The Senate was populated not by proportional representation but rather by an equal number of Senators (2) for each state.


Senators serve a 6 year term, whereas in Congress the terms are only two years long. Why do you suppose that is? Because Congress is directly answerable to the people and must be responsive to new ideas and the popular will. The Senate, having a 6 year term window, in the words of James Madison (Wikipedia),

"The use of the Senate is to consist in proceeding with more coolness, with more system, and with more wisdom, than the popular branch." Instead of two year terms as in the House, Senators serve six year terms, giving them more authority to ignore mass sentiment in favor of the country's broad interests. The smaller number of members and staggered terms also give the Senate a greater sense of community.
Furthermore, the Senate terms are not all Senate seat being decided every 6 years, they are staggered so that no more than 1/3 of the Senate is potentially replaced at any point in time. This further protects the country from radical swings. Just like the framers wanted.

Appointed Senate

It wasn't until 1913 that Senators were elected rather than appointed. Considering the country was founded on the ideals of liberty and justice for all, why would the country take a direction that seems anti-Democratic? Because the Congress was there to express the people's will, and the Senate was meant to be a more measured thought on issues of the day. The ship of the United States was not meant to be turned easily, it was meant to be turned after proper deliberation. The fact is the founders, while liking the idea of democracy, did not trust the people to make the right decisions. That's fair, quite often they don't. But government wasn't set up to thwart the common will, just to temper it with time.

The change to elected Senators had no impact on the idea or else the other aspects of the Senate would have been changed as well - Senatorial terms, and the election cycles.

Equal Representation by State

Back to Alec MacGillis and his seeming lack of understanding of American history. The Connecticut Compromise was regarded as an imperfect solution to two the opposing views represented at the Constitutional Convention. James Madison admitted that it was "superfluous to try, by the standard of theory, a part of the Constitution which is allowed on all hands to be the result, not of theory, but ‘of a spirit of amity, and that mutual deference and concession which the peculiarity of our political situation rendered indispensable."

Seems like a winnable argument for the upset Alec. But the proof that the compromise was a wise one came from the words of proponent James Wilson in accepting the Connecticut Compromise itself; "Our Constituents, had they voted as their representatives did, would have stood as 2/3 against equality, and 1/3 only in favor of it."

Two thirds stood against equality. Majority tyranny. MacGillis mentions the example of California versus Wyoming and the disproportionate representation in the Senate today. The answer to that canard comes to us across the centuries from the Constitutional Convention itself, in the words of Gunning Bedford Junior "...the small ones w[ould] find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice."

California today has 70 times the population of Wyoming. But Mr. MacGillis, you can't have every decision go California's way or you won't have a country. Do you expect that a state such as Wyoming must comply with every law that Californians want enacted? That's not democracy but rather majority tyranny. Without Wyoming having a relevant voice, why remain bound to California at all? Out of a sense of national duty? Even if that means unemployment or inoperable rules? The Constitution was built in such a way to allow not only individual liberty but States' liberty as well. The genius is the fact that it allows for a science lab of experimentation in commerce and in government. If every state is California then America is no better than a Soviet 5 year plan. We all know how well that experiment worked. All of us it seems, except for you.
Your article is one of convenience for your personal support for national health care agenda. Maybe re-write the Constitution? Your lack of understanding and respect for the founding fathers is exasperating. But I understand it's a matter of convenience. When the Senate stood against George Bush, were you pushing a change to the Constitution then? Not likely. But you know who wasn't either - mainstream conservatives. Because they respect the genius of the Constitution and of the founding fathers. Maybe you do too, but just to be sure, how about you go back to reporting instead of editorializing and let your readers make up their own minds for themselves?

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