Commentary & Opinion
3:35 pm
Tue February 26, 2013

Stephen Gottlieb: The Disfunctional House

I’ve spoken often about why sequester type budget cuts threaten a weak economy and can worsen the debt. Today I want to talk about history.

In 1787 the delegates to the Constitutional Convention struggled over the shape of Congress. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia had the largest populations. The Carolinas and Georgia realized they had far fewer people, but since the primary activity of most Americans was farm or plantation labor, they thought their size would eventually give them large populations. So they formed a six state coalition for representation in proportion to population, especially with the added voting power of three fifths the number of their slaves – turning the principle of majority rule into a deal with the devil.

With the exception of Massachusetts, of which Maine was still a part, the New England states were physically tiny by comparison. New York large in size, threw its weight to the smaller states, joining Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware who wanted a Senate in which each state had equal representation. Since New York left before New Hampshire arrived and Rhode Island never showed, there were never more than five states in the small state coalition. Six to five, the large state coalition kept winning. But they couldn’t hold it.

Gradually the larger states began to realize that, by their eighteenth century calculations, which we now know turned out wrong, the four southern slave states would control the House of Representatives because of their expected future population. With equal state representation in the Senate, the more numerous, but small, free states of the North should have been able to control the Senate. That would create regional vetoes – northern anti-slave control of the Senate, southern slave-state control of the House – and it entrenched the deal with the devil until the Civil War.

Of course Governor Clinton’s ditch, the Erie Canal, helped upset those calculations, let the Union win the Civil War and keep us in one country. Either way, the House was supposed to represent the views and preferences of a majority of Americans.

But representatives from the new Sun Belt are now part of a crucial block that has found another way to dominate the House – with one big difference. The delegates in Philadelphia had no idea how political parties would operate. They agreed that all representatives and senators would vote individually. So coalitions of Republicans and Democrats could work together to pass legislation that a majority of the House supports. But the Republicans in the House have decided that little can reach the floor without a majority of Republicans in support. And for the moment Republicans are a majority of the House. Their votes are crucial because nothing becomes a law without House passage. But a majority of the Republicans in the House is a minority of the House.

Their voting system is subjecting America to minority rule, of, by and for wealthy elites and their friends, living off government price supports for their products, and the new wild west and south of repealed regulations that once enforced fundamental fairness. The Congress the Founders created is being misused again.

Beware folks, there are many paths to slavery. Some are called peonage. They depend on unregulated contracts which allow creditors to take everything you have. And the House will stand defender of the takers of your lives.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.

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