The People’s House

The People’s House

I once inveighed against the American system of government, longing instead for the parliamentary system that permitted the bringing down of an administration whenever enough support for that could be mustered. Oh, think of that!

The United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate are in fact modeled respectively on the British House of Commons and House of Lords, the Senate having longer terms, being originally selected not by popular vote but by each state legislature, and assumed to be further removed from the popular politics of the so called “rabble,” thus better insulated to consider great matters of the nation. The US Senate was designed to represent the states–that each state would stand in a relationship of equality with the others. It was an expression of federalism. The US House of Representatives was designed to represent the nation. It was the expression of democracy, representing the people. The House of Representatives is the only branch of government directly elected by American voters since its formation in 1789.

Over time, I’ve come to greatly appreciate the subtle decisions made by the Framers of the Constitution as to checks and balances in every direction on every level. With all their faults, these guys had a taste for nuance, unto the small details. (I devoted my most recent podcast to an examination of the House; for more details, listen here.)

But back to checks and balances. For example, when the US Constitution was written, the British prevented anyone born outside England or its empire from serving in the Lower House, the House of Commons, even if the individual had subsequently become a citizen–and don’t even think about the Upper House, the House of Lords. By mandating that an individual be a citizen for at least seven years, the American Founders attempted to strike a balance between preventing foreign interference in domestic politics on the one hand, and keeping the House of Representatives close to the people on the other. But. The Founders also didn’t want to discourage immigration to the new country by shutting off the government to new arrivals. Balance.

Here’s another example. The American Revolution was, in part, a contest about the very definition of representation. In England, the House of Commons represented every British subject regardless of whether the subject could actually vote for its membership. In this sense, most people living in areas under British rule–including North America—were only virtually represented in Parliament. American colonists, accustomed to controlling their local affairs in directly elected colonial legislatures, resented British policies imposed on them, such as London imposing taxes without the benefit of a voice in Parliament. Thus, they rallied behind the motto “No taxation without representation.”

Representation was closely linked to taxation. Before federal income taxes or tariffs, the new states contributed to the national government with local taxes, often flat poll taxes on each citizen. Since Constitutional Framers had to provide for funding of the new government, they debated the proper relationship between representation and taxation. Several delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued that geographic size or usable farmland were better measures of state wealth than population–but that was more relevant to the Senate. For the House, delegates settled on proportional contributions based on population and, by extension, the number of members in the House of Representatives. Large states, with more human capital, should contribute more revenue to the national government and also have more seats in the legislature as a result. This fulfilled the promise of the American Revolution: taxation with representation.

Then there are term lengths. English Parliamentary elections and meetings of the House of Commons varied between three- and seven-year terms, but elections and meetings were set by the members themselves and often tied to the demands of the king. American Convention delegates argued heatedly about the terms of service for House members, and the Founders employed their experiences with the House of Commons and state legislatures when designing the new federal government.

Two innovations to further democratic accountability separated the American and British experiences. The first was fixed terms of office. Unlike Parliamentary systems, American political parties could not call advantageous elections whenever political leaders thought they’d be most likely to win. Instead, elections would be held according to a given length of time. The second innovation was regular elections. One- and three-year terms of service were initially proposed. Proponents of the one-year term used their state legislatures as an example while proponents of the three-year term followed the British example. Framers who favored longer terms argued that it would help the Senate track the democratic impulses of the House—remember that the French revolution had just occurred with its bloody excesses, and these men were highly alarmed at the thought of mob rule, as our own recent experiences with populist demagoguery and mob insurrection have reminded us. James Madison suggested a term of seven or nine years to hamper such influences. Alexander Hamilton argued that only lifetime terms could keep the “amazing violence and turbulence of the democratic spirit” in check. But others wanted shorter terms to keep the Senate accountable. The convention settled on two-year terms as a compromise between the one and three-year factions. Frequent elections in the House also helped to justify the longer terms of Senators, particularly for Federalists, who were concerned about popular opinion swaying public policy and who faced attacks for creating a so-called aristocratic chamber in Congress (the Senate) to represent state interests.

But there was yet another reason for the two-year term. It had to do with humility for House members, with their staying in touch with the people they represented. James Madison wrote in The Federalist 57, “The House of Representatives is so constituted as to support in the members an habitual recollection of their dependence on the people. Before the sentiments impressed on their minds by the mode of their elevation can be effaced by the exercise of power, they will be compelled to anticipate the moment when their power is to cease, when their exercise of it is to be reviewed, and when they must descend to the level from which they were raised; therefore ever to remain unless a faithful discharge of their trust shall have established their title to a renewal of it.” In The Federalist 52, he had written, “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on and an intimate sympathy with the people.”

“An intimate sympathy.” Hence the frequent elections, the shorter terms, and the overall designation as “the People’s House.”

All in all, with the exception perhaps of the Electoral College, for which a remedy does exist, a pretty amazing system of pure invention. The American experiment was a work of conceptual genius.