The Founding Fathers created the congressional branch of government not only to create laws but to serve in a capacity of “check and balance” on the executive. They vested power in each part of the congressional branch – to balance the need for representation by population and the need to protect the minority.
In designing the congressional branch of the new constitutional republic into two separate bodies (House of Representatives and the Senate), the founding fathers reasoned as follows:
- The House of Representatives would represent the short-term interests of citizens – terms to be set at two years. States would be represented by measure of their population – the greater the population, the more representatives in congress. Madison & Hamilton recognized the inherent danger of pure democracy and the rule of the mob – and just having the House of Representatives would expose the new nation to such rule.
- The Senate would provide a balance between the large and small states – giving each state equal representation with two senators would prevent the abuse of the minority. The Senate was intended to be “more aristocratic” and take the long-term view of issues – thus the founding fathers set the terms of senators to be six years as opposed to the three years of members of the House of Representatives. The intent was to encourage senators to be wise and mature in their deliberations and focus on what would be best for the nation.
The US government site that presents the history of the senate puts it this way regarding the Founding Fathers’ intent:
“In selecting an appropriate visual symbol of the Senate in its founding period, one might consider an anchor, a fence, or a saucer. Writing to Thomas Jefferson, who had been out of the country during the Constitutional Convention, James Madison explained that the Constitution’s framers considered the Senate to be the great “anchor” of the government. To the framers themselves, Madison explained that the Senate would be a “necessary fence” against the “fickleness and passion” that tended to influence the attitudes of the general public and members of the House of Representatives. George Washington is said to have told Jefferson that the framers had created the Senate to “cool” House legislation just as a saucer was used to cool hot tea.”
James Madison, paraphrasing Edmund Randolph, explained in his notes that the Senate’s role was “first to protect the people against their rulers [and] secondly to protect the people against the transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.”
The Founding Fathers did NOT envision either body of the congressional branch of government to consist of “career politicians” who looked first at preserving their jobs as Senators/Representatives rather than have a first priority of SERVING THE PEOPLE.
Nowadays it looks like we have the career folks – worried more about their jobs instead of the health of the nation.
At least on the career aspects of representation in a Congressional Republic, the Founding Fathers got it wrong.
They DID debate the pros and cons of term limits – putting a limit on the number of years that either senators or congressmen could serve. The Founding Fathers declined to include term limits in the Constitution – many feared the creation of a permanent political class that existed parallel to, rather than enmeshed within, American society.
The arguments – pro and con – are still relevant today.
For instance, a 1788 pseudonymous essay likely penned by noted anti-federalist Melancton Smith suggested that while limiting terms in local elections was probably unnecessary, limits would provide a useful check on the power of federal legislators, who were “elected for long periods, and far removed from the observation of the people.” The essay’s author worried that without a mechanism to push national legislators out of office from time to time, lawmakers would become “inattentive to the public good, callous, selfish, and the fountain of corruption.”
He continued to warn readers that “Even good men in office, in time, imperceptibly lose sight of the people, and gradually fall into measures prejudicial to them.”
Thomas Jefferson was also wary of abandoning rotation, and wrote to his friend Edward Rutledge in 1788, “I apprehend that the total abandonment of the principle of rotation in the offices of president and senator will end in abuse. But my confidence is that there will for a long time be virtue and good sense enough in our countrymen to correct abuses.”
But some of the Constitution’s strongest advocates rejected the notion that sweeping out legislators by law would reduce corruption.
James Madison wrote that term limits might actually lead to government dysfunction. He wrote that frequent elections were a better check on power than forcing legislators out of office by law.
Those who stood against term limits argued that regular elections by the people could be a better check on corruption than constitutional limits and that such restrictions would create their own problems.
Madison wrote in Federalist 53 that the higher proportion of new representatives swept into office due to term limits could lead to poor decisions and corruption from a wave of inexperienced legislators.
Madison surmised that the “greater the proportion of new members, and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt will they be to fall into the snares that may be laid for them.”
Ultimately, the anti-term limits forces won out and the Constitution was ratified without them.
But many of the symptoms of corruption and focusing only on personal financial or career gains instead of the long-term benefit to the people still exist with congressmen and senators who have spent more than a generation in office. Regarding the effect of those symptoms, the founding fathers who advocated term limits were right.
Maybe it’s time for a change!