In the government our founders created and gave us, the voice of “We the People” is designed to be heard primarily through our representatives in Congress. Our founders were very careful not to place too much governmental power in any one entity, but the majority of federal power they did create was vested in Congress. It was created to be the most powerful branch of the federal government. James Madison declared this fact in Federalist #51 where he says “The legislative authority necessarily predominates”. Congress is where the voice of the people is heard the loudest. Congress is covered in Article 1 of the Constitution, which is the longest Article in the Constitution. Remember from our article, “What are Enumerated Powers?”, that in order for the federal government to have a legitimate power, it has to be specifically authorized in the Constitution. So, a longer article in the Constitution equates to a more powerful branch! We will discuss the Congress a little bit here, and in another few future articles to see some history that led up to its development, how it was built, some of the specific, enumerated powers entrusted to it, and how it was expected to carry out those powers, and ways we can hold our Representatives and Senators in Congress accountable to their oath to support the Constitution.
History of Necessary Compromise
Our founders were experts at creating systems that represented and accounted for competing interests. Recall from our article, “Are “General Welfare” and “Necessary and Proper” Clauses Constitutional Exceptions to Enumerated Powers?”, that at the close of the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies were, more accurately, 13 independent countries. Each was independent from Great Britain, and each was independent from the other 12. In the final paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, we see it declared, “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States…”, but to understand what they meant by that word “States”, we need only to read a little farther in the same paragraph of the Declaration where it also says, “all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliance, establish commerce, and do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.” We see Great Britain referred to as a “State”, and we see the list of things that “States” do starts to sound like activities of what we call nations, or countries. So, this term, “State” as used in the Declaration, meant that these 13 entities were separate nations. Each State was perfectly capable of governing themselves, and everyone knew it. But they also knew they would all be stronger together if they created another entity, the federal government, to manage a short list of specific tasks that would be more efficient and better managed if done by a limited federal government on behalf of all of them. This meant that our founders had to be experts at the art of compromise, or this thing would never work. Thankfully… they were!
How it was built – “Bicameral” Congress
As I am sure you can imagine, when you bring representatives together from 13 independent countries, none of them wants to give up their voice to the other 12. Especially sensitive was that very large states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, for example, did not want their voice squelched by smaller states. Since they represented more people, they felt they should have a louder voice in Congress. So, on one hand, it was important that population size should factor in and affect the level of representation in Congress. At the same time, however, it also seems reasonable that each of them is a free and independent state, and regardless of size, they should have equal representation in Congress. So, our Founders had to design a system that took into account both of these competing interests. Their answer? A “bicameral” Congress. The word “bicameral” means “2 houses”. So, they created two houses of Congress. In the House of Representatives, there would be proportional representation according to population. In the Senate, the states would all be equally represented. The two houses have to work together to pass legislation, so the competing interests of representation will be factored in every time Congress votes. We should all be grateful for our founders’ remarkable ability to compromise and to account for competing interests.
So our founders created a “bicameral” Congress to ensure they gave representation based upon 2 priorities: 1) the voice of the people where more people equals more voice. This is the House of Representatives, and 2) the voice of the individual states where each state has an equal voice. This is the United States Senate. We will look at each house of Congress in more detail later, but for now, let’s remember the two houses of Congress (Senate and the House), some of the history behind their creation, and how they were built to represent both the people as well as the states.
Next we will see how to determine who your Representatives and Senators are, how they voted in key legislation, and how you can contact them to hold them accountable! Let us know in the comments how it goes and what you learn!
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