Our Dysfunctional Congress – Our Founding Fathers Got It Wrong in Federalist Paper #52

Federalist #52 on the Dangers of a Tyrannical Legislature

In Federalist Paper #52, James Madison makes a weak argument regarding the frequency of elections for members of the House of Representatives. And in the long run, the result seems to be the creation of a dysfunctional legislative body.

Arguments for longer Member terms were that in the late 1700’s, Members had long travel times between their homes and the center of government and longer terms would improve the stability and efficiency of government; but longer terms put legislators further away from the will of the people and less responsive to critical needs.

Sensitivity and responsiveness to the will of the people was paramount in Madison’s argument – necessary to protect against a tyrannical legislature – thus arguing for shorter terms. Additionally, Madison felt that shorter terms would allow for a more constant stream of new members who would be less likely to succumb to the temptations of corruption that might plague those with longer terms.

Madison suggested that the model of British triennial elections provided security for British liberty.

So, Madison sought a balance, though not based on any particular evidence. He suggested that a term of two years would provide even more security than the British three – reaching a “balance” that might address conflicting needs.

Hamilton and Madison felt that Members of Congress would see their roles as serving the people – and depart gracefully . . . . . that Members would NOT view their Congressional roles as long-term careers.

On reflection, that seems like a rather altruistic and perhaps naïve view – a distant dream. The end result certainly didn’t turn out the way the authors of the Federalist Papers had hoped.

Many – if not nearly all – Members of Congress seem to view themselves as being in a career. Because this career needs to be renewed every two years, Members are forced to spend countless hours raising money to fund their quest for reelection. And they are susceptible to the influence of major donors and lobbyists with deep pockets.

The hope of Members focusing on the will of the people faded into obscurity.

Go to Federalist #52 Summary

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