A perspective on the Constitution, Congress and We The People

Op-Ed by Edward R. Long Jr.

Over the years, including this one, I have found myself frustrated with the manner in which individuals want to employ the U. S. Constitution, the lack of congressional accomplishments, and the loss of the voice of the people. (As for the last two, my thoughts for state and local government aren’t much different.) I know I am not alone regarding Congress because a July 2008 Rasmussen Poll found that only 9 percent of us gave Congress a positive rating. This being said, the following is a perspective on the Constitution, Congress, and We The People.

 

The Constitution

The United States Government is a republic, which is a representative form of democracy. Webster defines a republic as “(a): a government having a chief of state who is not a monarch and who in modern times is usually a president, (b): a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.” The foundation of our republic is our Constitution, which presently consists of a preamble (a statement of purpose), seven articles, and 27 amendments.

The Constitution originally included only the preamble and the articles. It was adopted on Sept. 17, 1787 at a convention of the 13 states. The Preamble is: “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” – the capitalization and spelling is as it appears. The five items (Justice, Domestic Tranquility, Common Defense, General Welfare, and Liberty) are at the center of the purpose of the federal government – most of the power for which lies within the Congress.

(Note: At the time the Constitution was written “welfare” meant “health, happiness, prosperity and/or well-being.” This is not today’s meaning.)

Ratification of the Constitution was not a done deal. From the first day it was placed before the people for ratification a great debate began for the meaning, purpose and ramifications of each of its parts. Those in favor of it were called Federalists and rallied around a set of letters to a New York newspaper, entitled The Federalists Papers. Those in opposition to the Constitution were known as Anti-Federalists or states-rights supporters. They, too, submitted letters and articles to the newspapers. The Anti-Federalists objected that a bill of rights had not been included, that the president had too much independence, and that the Senate was too aristocratic. They also thought Congress had too many powers, the national government had too much authority, and that the states would have little or none. The supporters, the Federalists, did not deny that the power and authority of the national government would be superior to that of the individual states. The Federalists thought that the power was essential if the Union was to be preserved.

The one thing both sides agreed on was that the Constitution would be organic to the people and the Union. Neither side believed the U.S. Constitution should be a living document. That belief can be found in the writings of their opinions and their respective concerns. The two sides made very explicit statements that the Constitution would not be a living document, two examples for which are: (1) in Federalist Paper #53 is the statement: “The important distinction so well understood in America, between a Constitution established by the people and unalterable by the government, and a law established by the government and alterable by the government …”, and (2) in Brutus’s (pen name of an Anti-Federalist) Nov. 1, 1787 letter to a New York paper: “The constitution proposed to your acceptance, is designed not for yourselves alone, but for generations yet unborn.”

Furthermore consider the following two statements by Thomas Jefferson: (1) – “I do then, with sincere zeal, wish an inviolable preservation of our present federal Constitution, according to the true sense in which it was adopted by the states, that in which it was advocated by its friends, and not that which its enemies apprehended, who therefore became its enemies.” 1799 and (2) – “The Constitution on which our Union rests, shall be administered by me [as President] according to the safe and honest meaning contemplated by the plain understanding of the people of the United States at the time of its adoption–a meaning to be found in the explanations of those who advocated, not those who opposed it, and who opposed it merely lest the construction should be applied which they denounced as possible.” 1801

The reason our Founding Fathers believed the Constitution should not be a living document is that a living document is a book of policy and laws that is in a state of flux that caters to the bias of those who are currently in control. It does not provide a definition of national character, focus, or a lasting template of values to which the people can adhere and make reference to for themselves and the generations to come. So they, the Founding Fathers, drafted a document that provided a fundamental three-branch form of government, each branch with its powers, restrictions and checks upon the other two, just vague enough to not be tied to any time or era but not so vague as to lose the underlying principles of the Nation it defined or protection of the people to which it was entrusted.

 

The Congress

Article 1 of the Constitution defines the legislative branch (Congress) of the U.S. government. It contains 10 sections that describe the two parts of the Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate), elections and meetings, membership and rules, compensation, legislative process, powers and limits, and finally powers prohibited of the states. The powers of Congress are contained within Section 8, aside of war and the military. We The People are especially affected by paragraphs 1 and 18.

At the time of the writing of the Constitution the Founding Fathers were fully aware that members of the Congress would take sides on legislative issues. It is very unlikely that they imagined that the members of Congress would organize their respective sides into political parties that would become more interested in the power and interests of their party than the responsibility to represent the people. The very debate on the ratification of the Constitution created the foundations for political parties and this foundation grew rapidly once the Constitution was ratified, beginning with the disagreements between Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Hamilton. In all likelihood, had the Founding Fathers fully anticipated what would become the power and the selfish interests of political parties, there would have wording in the Constitution that would have restricted their influence on the character and operation of our government. I say this because the Founding Fathers knew from history that there was a need for checks and balances between the three parts (legislative, administrative, and judicial) of the government. To put it bluntly, the Founding Fathers did not trust that those in government would faithfully represent the wishes and will of the people. They feared that those elected to represent the people would become more interested in representing themselves. If you read the writings of the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, you will find explicit statements, many times over, of this mistrust.

(And if you look at the latest Rasmussen Poll you will find that 72 percent of the Americans surveyed feel that congressional members are more interested in furthering their own political career than doing the job they were elected to do. Sort of makes you think that the wisdom of the Founding fathers is still embedded in the population as a whole.)

Congress has two parts, a House of Representatives and a Senate. The House of Representative consists of individuals elected by popular vote of the people to represent those People – thus accomplishing We the People in the Preamble. It also gave the large-population states the voice they sought. The Founding Fathers thought an elected period of two years was appropriate. (You can acquire a vague explanation for why this length by reading Federalist Papers No. 52 and 53.) However, it is again unlikely the Founding Fathers anticipated that eventually those elected would be make it their lifetime profession to be members of the House of Representatives by seeking re-election after re-election: I suspect that had they thought there would be professional politicians who sought lifetime membership through re-elections they would have included term limits.

The Senate consists of two individuals from each state who, until the early 1900s, were appointed by their respective state government. We are taught in school that by having an equal number from each state the Senate gave the small-population states a balance to the population-based representation in the House. What is not emphasized, often never mentioned, in those boring school history lessons was that more importantly the Senate provided a voice, a power and a role of the individual states in federal government. To quote from Federalist Paper #62: “In this spirit it may be remarked, that the equal vote allowed to each State is at once a constitutional recognition of the portion of sovereignty remaining in the individual States, and an instrument for preserving that residuary sovereignty.” It is this aspect of representation of the state for why the Senate was given not just a legislative responsibility and role but also executive and judiciary.

The appointment of senators by state legislators ended with the 17th Amendment of the Constitution. From that time forward senators have been chosen by popular vote, just as the representatives are. What led to this change was in part due to partisan conflict at the state level, in part to liberal (they called themselves progressive, and still do) members of both parties, and a lot due to Hearst’s newspapers and magazines that practiced a muckraking form of reporting called yellow journalism.

There are many people who believe the 17th Amendment has led to excessive party power, large government, excessive taxation, entitlement programs, special interest and expansion of the authority of Congress. Two quotes come to mind which read in part: (1) “one of the last nails to be pounded into the coffin of federalism in America” and (2) “A national Senate was essential in the conquest of State sovereignty.” In some aspects it is difficult to imagine the 17th Amendment should ever have been ratified, because of the very principles imbedded in the Constitution. It left us with a Senate whose powers and responsibilities are unchanged from the origins in the Constitution but whose members are selected by the same political process as those in the House – something that was never intended. It has completely removed the voice and authority of the individual states out of the federal process – which was a checks and balance aspect just as vital and important as those between the three branches of the federal government. So the election and operational process of the Congress has become more political than representative. Which finally brings me to you and me, We The People.

 

We The People

We have issues facing us which are begging for decisions on the part of our Congress, decisions that will either lead to positive and constructive efforts on the part of the government or to the federal government getting out of the way and letting We The People take care of it without government interference. These issues include oil and natural gas, refineries (for gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and propane), the use of corn (for food or for fuel), nuclear power, alternative sources of energy, real-estate loans and pricing, balance of trade, border and other forms of security, Social Security, Medicare, health care, earmarks, general pork-barrel programs, and, a key to all of this, taxation.

So far Congress has done little or nothing about any of these issues other than to figure out how to waste money. (I am not alone in this feeling. The Rasmussen Poll found that 62 percent of us, We The People, believe Congress has not passed any legislation to improve life and 55 percent of us believe it is unlikely Congress will address important matters.) This tell me that Congress is simply not earning its keep. It is not doing its job. It is not representing We The People. The question is, Why is Congress doing so poorly?

The answer, my friend, is not written in the wind. It is written in the Constitution. The answer is that We The People are not doing our job. I say this out of mild panic and growing concern because of another bit of data from that recent Rasmussen Poll. It also showed that 50 percent of us believe America’s best days are in the past and 64 percent of us believe the world would be a better place if more countries were similar to the U.S. What this tells me is that while we believe our form of government is the best there is we have lost faith in ourselves. We have forgotten that this country is based on us and not a bunch of irresponsible nitwits whom we apparently have elected into Congress As Pogo said 37 years ago, “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”

We The People need to be fully aware of and understand what that candidate for Congress (the politician) is saying before we go the election booth. More of us need to go to the election booth. And after we elect that politician into office to represent us, we need to keep tabs on what he or she is actually doing as member of Congress. If he or she isn’t doing what we think should be done, then We The People need to call them, write letters to them, heck, even e-mail them and tell them so and tell them in no uncertain words what we do not like about what they are doing – or not doing..

And finally, if that politician whom we have elected to represent us in Congress does not get it right then We The People need to vote for someone else at the next election. If We The People did this, then we would be restoring the power to where the Constitution intended it to be – with us, We The People.

I am simply saying that most of us are complacently accepting what government is doing, or not doing. Meanwhile government grows, it taxes, it passes out handouts of what is already ours. Meanwhile the representatives are representing themselves more so than representing We The People. They become trapped in their own egos, greed, and their chase for power.

If We The People do not meet our responsibilities for making certain that the elected members of Congress represent us, then it is We The People who suffer the loss of what the Constitution has provided us.


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