Witnessing the stagnation of the 112th Congress gives pause as to why our nation’s founders thought it wise to devise a bicameral legislature. Seeing our House introduce 2,031 bills in 2011 and vote on only 137 of those bills, only to have all but 45 ignored in the Senate leads to the question of whether Congress is acting within the bounds of the Constitution.
At a cost of over $5 billion to maintain Congress plus an additional $4 billion on lobbying and $1 billion spent annually on campaigns, the average cost of passing each bill is $294 million (not including naming post offices). While reluctantly concluding that Congress is within its bounds spending so much to accomplish so little, one might also suggest that such a bicameral sloth is evidence that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 blindly included a fatal flaw when creating America’s esteemed and historically profound legislative body.
Having lived through a decade under weak Articles of Confederation, the Constitution’s authors believed that a strong central government was vital to our new nation’s survival. Yet they also knew that its federalist nature must be preserved for enough votes for a Constitution that was critical to obtaining such national icons as a standing army. The colonies, having gained their freedom from Great Britain’s tyranny, would never again subject themselves to foreign authority without guarantees to the limits of that power’s rule. Unlike Great Britain, whose empire’s authority limitlessly extended to whatever laws were created for it, America’s government would draw a hard line to take upon itself specifically enumerated powers and no more.
This balance between nationalism and federalism in the Constitution was critical because of two extremes of philosophy. First, wealthy property owners, including those that derived their wealth from slavery, feared the new government would take their property. Second, many were adamantly opposed to slavery and workers feared any formation of a new “monarchy” that could eviscerate their individual liberties. John Locke, the English philosopher, insightfully wrote, “The great and chief end of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.” This right to property that binds the elite and working class of society together was the basis of the two chambers of our Congress.
Protecting property and preserving liberties of all was the combined challenge for the Constitution’s designers. This balance had not previously been achieved in history, although empires such as Rome and Great Britain had limited success through the use of bicameral legislative bodies, one to support the rights of the financially elite and the other to support the rights of the common man, each with veto powers. America’s forefathers’ initial conversations were recorded to have been focused on these same principles, yet preserving rights for the elite was not publicly acceptable so soon after the revolution. The constitution adapted the bicameral legislature to state’s rights as a euphemism of meeting elites’ property protection needs, and of preserving individual liberties as a component of middle class property rights as well.
Unfortunately, the property right goals hoped for through Congress’s bicameral process have not held up to history for America’s working class, subjecting her citizens to the same failings of Rome and Great Britain. The fatal flaw thus far in attempting to pursue stable governments has been mankind’s inability to observe Locke’s rule. Corruptible men continue to ignore that all social classes have desires to protect their property, and that the little property of the lowest class is as dear to them as is the elite’s amassed wealth that is savored upon their perch in society.
Sixteenth century philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli observed that governments have cycles that begin with monarchy, change into aristocracy, and then change again into democracy, yet that all three forms of government lead to corruption of property rights. Machiavelli thought that the Romans had solved this dilemma with their bicameral legislative body. The Senate would protect the interests of the elite and the Plebeian Council would protect the interests of the working class, each having veto rights to any legislation proposed by the other. A review of Rome’s Republican political system over 500 years, however, shows that their bicameral system did not protect either class from corruption.
In Rome’s case, government slowly ceased creating a business environment that could support its citizens’ basic needs. From a monarchy, Rome evolved into a Republic heavily influenced by the power of the Senate, a body representing the wealthiest of Rome. The Senate supported the elite, who controlled the wealth of the country, suppressed working class wages and employment by importing slave labor, and indebted the working class through taxes to support ongoing wars without relief. To oppose this economic oppression of the state against its citizens, working class Plebeians organized strikes to eventually gain authority for a second legislative body that would protect them from the excesses of the elite.
Yet over time, representatives of the Plebeian Council grew wealthy with their new authority and began to identify more with the elite members of the Senate than with the people they were supposed to represent. As the Senate and Plebeian Representatives grew wealthier while the plebeians endured poverty, their continued economic oppression ultimately set the stage for a populist revolution led by Julius Caesar that eventually murdered many elite, including senators, and dispersed their wealth among the soldiers and working class.
Great Britain’s representative government evolved in much the same manner as Rome. The House of Lords evolved from an advisory council to the king into a legislative body representing the elite of Britain. Britain’s underclass eventually demanded and received their House of Commons which eventually usurped power from their Government and supported the beheading of their king. Over time, the House of Commons severely limited the authority of the House of Lords. Yet through the centuries, complaints became commonplace about House of Commons’ members being corrupted by the elite. When the House of Commons restricted the power of the House of Lords, the elite of Britain simply controlled representatives of the House of Commons to affect their desired outcomes.
With both Rome and Great Britain as examples of bicameral legislatures that were unable to preserve the property rights of their commoners, it would not be surprising to find that America’s House of Representatives has also fallen prey to subordinating her common man’s property rights to America’s elite. Without a deliberate intent to preserve the House of Representatives for such purpose, it is no wonder that the House left her commoners’ properties in shambles, unchecked by elites’ incessant appetite for wealth and power. A review of the House’s 2011 legislative work, which should have been focused as a laser to repair the destructive power of the economic crisis that has devastated Middle America’s property, will give us a window into whether or not the House has been corrupted from its original purpose.
Of the 2,031 bills that were introduced in the House, House leadership brought 137 to the floor for a vote. 28 were ceremonial such as the naming of post offices or commemorating coins. 10 were intergovernmental such as conveying land to a state. 10 extended the time frame of existing laws. An additional 15 were for appropriations. 2 were apparently self serving such as one to provide for funds to improve Reagan National Airport, the airport of choice for Congress. 6 failed to gain a majority support such as a bill to force the reduction of use of incandescent light bulbs. Together, these amounted to 71 of the 137 bill votes or 52%.
The remainder of the bills reflected the changing nature of the House of Representatives, the entire body being elected every two years, with each new Congress setting its political agenda according the directive of the Majority’s leadership. The 112th Congress, controlled by the Republicans and influenced by the Tea Party, voted on legislation that it knew would not pass the Senate, including 12 bills that only marginally reduced budget costs, but that expressed its budget lowering agenda. Yet, the House did not vote on a single bill for comprehensive cost reduction. Representative Ryan’s plan, though fiscally responsible, was battered by the public, and was only voted on as a resolution.
The House also voted on 10 bills that attacked the President’s health care bill. In addition, the House voted on 6 social issue bills such as defunding of federally funded abortions. The House supported the military with 6 bills such as funding for veterans returning to the workforce. It also supported international business with 17 bills, such as enforcing the restarting of offshore oil drilling, placing restrictions on the National Labor Relations board, and passing 3 international trade bills. One international business bill that sailed through Congress unnoticed on December 7, 2011, passing with a 402-0 vote count, was H.R. 393, an extension of the Citizens United “corporation as citizen” concept to all foreign corporations.
The remaining 19 bills focused on the Republican majority’s regulation reduction agenda for the 113th Congress. 13 bills proposed reducing regulations for such items as dust, coal waste, and insecticides as well as requiring impact studies on costly regulations. 6 additional bills amazingly seem to be the result of a continued powerful lobbying of the financial industry in garnering reduced financial regulations on such items as crowdfunding investments, signaling a bellwether of America’s next financial crisis.
No bills addressed the property rights of the middle class. None directly focused on their loss of jobs, the taking of their homes, their massive indebtedness, or their loss of access to credit resulting from America’s imploding economy. None focused on any systematic reduction of government expenditures, or rational lowering of taxes. None focused on a global plan for revitalization of the economy that would support property protection of the working class. The House of Representatives, through its voting record, put forth an agenda that supports the same property rights as has been sustained in the Senate, that of America’s elite.
The evidence of votes shows that a fundamental shift has occurred in the House of Representatives. Like the empires of old, it has lost its character as the voice of Middle America. It now mirrors the will of the Senate, proposing bills complementary to the desires of America’s elite. Having lost its more noble purpose, the House of Representatives has become merely a deterrent to effective government, just another vote that impedes the will of the people. The House of Representatives’ historic purpose must be salvaged with a thorough house cleaning.