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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

James Madison is in the Building

As William F. Connelly Jr. explains in a forthcoming book, you cannot understand Congress without understanding the work of James Madison. A key passage from Federalist 51 reads as follows:
A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State. But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense. In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates. The remedy for this inconveniency is to divide the legislature into different branches; and to render them, by different modes of election and different principles of action, as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit. It may even be necessary to guard against dangerous encroachments by still further precautions.
Tension between Senate and House -- part of the constitutional design -- is playing out in the health care debate. According to The Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made a promise to Democratic colleagues in danger of losing reelection in 2010: she will not bring politically-risky bills to the floor unless the Senate acts first.
The Speaker has told members in meetings that we’ve done our jobs,” a Democratic leadership aide said. “And that next year the Senate’s going to have to prove what it can accomplish before we go sticking our necks out any further.
The Politico explains the source of concern: during 2009, the House has often gone first, only to see things stall on the other side of Capitol Hill. It quotes several House members expressing frustration:

“When it comes to a jobs bill, the Senate seems more interested in dithering,” says first-year Rep. Tom Perriello, a Virginia Democrat whohas taken heat back home for tough votes on climate change and health care — two issues that remain bottled up in slow-moving Senate deliberations.

“If you just take a look at the number of bills we’ve sent to the Senate and what they’ve done, I don’t know what they’re doing with their time honestly,” says Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Cal.).

“I think the majority leader sometimes has to have the leadership to resolve these things,” says Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat challenging Sen. Arlen Specter, in a direct attack on Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “I understand it’s politically challenging, but we have the votes — and we should be doing much better than we are. I think this place needs a change, quite frankly.”

The view from the Senate is different:

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) — a former House member himself — said there’s built-in tension between the two bodies, and that the tension leads to frustration among members of both.

“I understand that. I meet with them all the time — they are not happy with the pace of our deliberations,” he said. “But unfortunately, it reflects more on the institution than any given member ... [T]he rules here are designed to block. That’s what the founding fathers had in mind.”