The place of Congress in the Constitutional order.

Author:Whittington, Keith E.
Position:The Federalist Society's Article I Initiative

It is no accident that the Constitution begins with Congress. The Founders understood that the legislature would be central to the new constitutional project. Congress would be the foundation stone upon which the rest of the governmental edifice would be constructed, and so it necessarily came first in the constitutional document and absorbed the bulk of the delegates' attention at the Philadelphia Convention in the summer of 1787. Getting the national legislature right, they believed, was their most important task if the government they were constructing was to be successful.

Beginning with Congress was the natural choice for those designing a new government for the American republic. The first American constitution, the Fundamental Orders of the Connecticut colony, began by establishing two general assemblies. (1) Even the royal charters granted to the colonists settling the North American wilderness tended to begin by setting out a council for the "ruling, ordering, and governing" of the inhabitants, as the Charter of Massachusetts Bay put it. (2) When the revolutionaries announced, as in Virginia, that "the government of the country, as formerly exercised under the crown of Great Britain, is TOTALLY DISSOLVED," their plans for new state governments began with the legislative branch. (3) The Articles of Confederation government consisted of nothing but a legislature. (4)

In Britain, the power of Parliament had to be wrested from the king. The growth of parliamentary authority gradually transformed the British kingdom and secured new liberties for Englishmen. Britain was not a republic, but the English colonists who crossed the Atlantic Ocean were nurtured on republican ideas. And at the heart of any republic would be an assembly of the people. It was that body that made it the people's government. (5)

There was little question that when the Federalists gathered in Philadelphia to reconstitute the federal government and put it on stronger footing, the design of Congress would be the first priority. They knew that Congress could not be the whole of the government, but they expected Congress to be the driving force of any government they created, with all the promise and danger that that entailed. It would be the repository of national powers, and the channel of popular energy. (6)

The Founders were clear-eyed about the national legislature. They recognized both its potential virtues and its potential vices. Finding a place for Congress within the constitutional order meant appreciating both those virtues and those vices, and finding ways to help realize and take advantage of the benefits that a legislature can bring and of finding ways to curtail the damage that it might do.


    Congress serves a particular role within the constitutional system. That role exploits the particular virtues of a representative assembly. Congress is constituted so as try to build up those virtues, and it is empowered to perform duties that exploit those advantages.

    There are four interrelated political virtues associated with Congress. Congress is the primary vehicle by which the citizenry is represented in government. Congress is the government institution most directly accountable to the people. Congress embodies deliberation in the making of government policy. The work of Congress is relatively transparent to the public. This is not to say that the other branches of the federal government are completely lacking in these virtues, but simply that Congress has a comparative advantage when it comes to these features of the political system. The design of Congress is meant to bring these virtues to the fore, and the powers and responsibilities assigned to Congress attempt to take advantage of them.

    1. Congressional Representation

      Congress is entrusted with the legislative power because it is a representative assembly. Popular representation and policymaking power were understood by the Framers to go together (7) and as a consequence the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention spent most of the summer wrestling with the twin problems of what powers were to be entrusted to the national government and who would control those powers. (8) As a practical matter, that meant determining what powers Congress was going to possess and how Congress was going to be constituted. Those were the thorniest issues to be resolved in drafting a new Constitution, and Article I of the U.S. Constitution is the most detailed of all of its parts to memorialize those carefully negotiated arrangements.

      In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, statesmen recognized that political representation in a republic could reflect three distinct things: property, people, and political communities. (9) The architecture of Article I embodies and reconciles all three forms of representation.

      Notably, this idea of republican government meant rejecting another possible basis of representation: social orders. (10) The governments of Europe were forced to compromise republican principles and take into account inherited social orders. The landed aristocracy and the hereditary nobility were understood to be a distinct social interest that required their own representation. (11) The "people" were only represented in a single component of the British government, the House of Commons, and that chamber alone was to represent their interests. (12) By contrast, the United States consisted only of the people. No other interest could be recognized as legitimate. They were not to be confined to a single portion of the government; their spirit was to move all of its parts. There would be no American House of Lords.

      It was a long-standing principle of the evolving British constitutional system that property-holders should have a voice in the decision to collect taxes. The need to represent property was essential to the emergence of parliamentary government. (13) This was a critically democratizing reform. British property-holders insisted that the king should not be able to unilaterally extract resources from society and dispose of those resources at his own discretion. The people who were being asked to bear the costs of government activities should have a role in authorizing and directing those activities. The king must go to the legislature to open the purse strings. (14) That fundamental principle was carried to the American colonies and embodied in colonial legislative assemblies. The revolutionary cry of "no taxation without representation" appealed to that same ancient principle, while denying that the Parliament in London could adequately represent the interests of the taxpayers in Boston. (15) There is no more basic principle in the American constitutional system than the requirement that elected representatives must choose whether to extract revenue from the people.

      The Framers of the Constitution reconciled the representation of property and people in a single republican principle. It was understood that the governmental treasury would not be filled by a small set of plutocrats. The financial health of the republic stood on much broader foundations. The people as a whole are the source of financial support for the government. (16) Taxes would not be raised from the few but rather from the many, and as a result the many should be involved in making the decisions on how taxes should be imposed and how much revenue should be raised. If the fiscal burden of government was not to be widely shared and taxpayers were to be a small subset of the population, then requiring that the government consult with those wealthy enough to contribute to the public fisc would not move a country very far toward becoming a democracy. But if there is no meaningful gap between taxpayers and citizens, then the principle of "no taxation without representation" becomes a fully republican principle.

      The Origination Clause in Article I, Section 7 expresses that commitment: "All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills." (17) Although the Origination Clause might seem like a bit of technical detail, it appears at the head of the list of congressional powers for a reason. Before the Constitution even explains the process by which legislation can be made, it specifies that only the House of Representatives can launch a proposal to raise revenue. It does so because within Congress itself the House of Representatives is the people's chamber. (18) If the people, through their representatives, must authorize a tax, then it is the House alone that can give that authorization. Both symbolically and functionally, the most popular body in the government controls the purse strings.

      The Origination Clause might not have been needed but for the different forms of representation embodied in the House and the Senate. As James Madison later explained, "the House of Representatives will derive its power from the people of America." (19) The people are represented directly in the House and in proportion to their numbers. (20) The Senate, by contrast, was constructed on the basis of the third form of representation, political communities. As Madison observed, the states "as political and coequal societies" are "represented on the principle of equality in the Senate." (21) Although the Seventeenth Amendment shifted the mode of selection of senators so that they are chosen directly by the people, it did not alter the principle of representation. (22) Madison was skeptical of the indirect election of legislatures, fearing that the "people would be lost sight of altogether, and the necessary sympathy between them and their rulers and officers, too little felt," and as a result he thought it was imperative that at least one chamber of Congress not be "removed from the people by an intervening body of electors." (23) Eliminating that intervening body of electors certainly changed...

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