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Should We Have a Part-Time Legislature?

February 4, 2012

“Cut their pay and send them home” is a common refrain from candidates running for office, whether it is for President, Governor, activists backing ballot proposals or for legislative office at the state or federal level.  While it may please the spirit to think of doing this, the mind must be employed to consider what side-effects this action would have.

Historically, legislative bodies have been, aside from juries, the arm of government closest to them.  Legislative candidates typically run for two-year terms for the lower house of bicameral legislatures, while upper-house members (the US Senate aside) normally serve no more than four years between elections.  Since removal from office is the surest threat and greatest power voters may exercise over their elected representatives, this makes legislators, especially lower-house ones, the most responsive to the voters’ wishes.  Additionally, legislative districts are smaller than executive-branch ones, meaning that each voter has greater weight and more access to a legislator than she does to a Governor or a President.  (For example, Michigan has 110 state house seats and one Governor; the chances of obtaining a meeting with a member of the Michigan House of Representatives is thus much greater than of doing the same with the Governor.  At the Federal level, the corresponding ratio is 435:1.)  Recalls are also, by virtue of smaller district sizes, easier to effect against a legislator than against someone holding statewide office.  (Presidents cannot be recalled.)

Legislators are often held, rightly so, in poor regard because of over-spending, over-legislating, corruption and a revolving-door system that makes their future career prospects lucrative if they choose to become lobbyists, et cetera.  However, in terms of maintaining and maximizing freedom, consider the balance of power between the Legislative and Executive branches:

1.)  The police power is in the hands of the Executive

2.)  the military power answers to the Executive, who is Commander-in-chief

3.)  Executive Branch departments and agencies exercise regulatory power, and within the scope of administrative law, judicial power over the regulations that they write and those who are affected by them.

4.)  In contrast, the Legislative Branch has ‘the power of the purse’ – taxation and spending – as well as oversight over Executive Branch agencies (by holding hearings, conducting inquiries, and the like)

5.)  The Executive Branch employs many more people than does the Legislative Branch, in toto and individually for each legislator.

6.)  Legislative Branch employees rarely have the power to arrest, subpoena or other forms of compulsory power, which their Executive Branch counterparts often do.

(The above is meant to generalize, and special circumstances abound which are exceptions to the above, such as in states which have not consolidated the powers given to various commissions – common before World war II – to oversee departments of state government and given them to consolidated, Executive control, in the name of efficiency in government.)

The above is intended to illustrate that, in modern state and federal government, the Executive Branch exercises more power than the Legislative Branch.  with only the reactive power of the Judicial Branch available as a check upon their power, Governors (or the President) would be in a much stronger position to act without check or oversight were their legislative counterparts part-time.

A recent revisit with an old favorite, Lord Macaulay’sHistory of England,’ brought much of the foregoing to mind.  The Stuarts wanted to subvert the old free Constitution of England and to rule, like their Continental peers, by divine right.  James’ successor, Charles II, ruled as a semi-absolute monarch for 11 years without calling Parliament into session – the longest stretch between the King John’s barons forcing him to sign Magna Carta in 1215 and the present day.  When he did call Parliament into session, he got what he wanted – taxes for his war in Scotland – and then dismissed them after three weeks, breaking every promise he’d made about good government in the process.  The ‘Short Parliament‘ of 1640 preceded the ‘Long Parliament,’ which  sat, in one form or another, until 1660.  The end of the Cromwellian phase of the English Civil War, which preceded its’ end by a short span of months, marked the midpoint of that three-genration struggle that ended with the triumph of legislative power in England.

Their lesson was a hard one, paid for in toil, treasure and native blood.  the Founding Fathers knew it well, as many of the American colonists had emigrated hither to escape religious or political oppression, or weighed the dangerous and doubtful crossing of the Atlantic and the prospect of taking land from the fierce original owners of it as a better chance of having a good life than that offered by having to endure a lifetime of partisan and ecclesiastical strife. They also read John Locke, Algernon Sidney and other Whig political thinkers who penned their musings during that tempestuous era.

The lessons they learned included a distrust of unchecked Executive power.  Many of our early institutions, from the Articles of Confederation to early state constitutions, sharply limited executive authority.  That lesson, like an action (in terms of physics) produce an opposite and (perhaps) equal reaction:  The inefficiency and corruption of a legislatively-dominated system produced the consolidated executive governments now provided for in state constitutions around the country (Texas being an exception).

There are, of course, many other things that come into play here.  Texas, for example, had the lesson of Reconstruction in mind in framing a state constitution that called for a plural  Executive – one where each member was relatively weak and limited in the exercise of unchecked power.  Nonetheless, the basic lesson remains clear and unambiguous:  The Legislature is less a threat to our freedom and safety than is the Executive, and to have a part-time Legislature means an unchecked Executive able to usurp and abuse power with only the restraint imposed by the negative power of the courts (and judges are often Executively-appointed) to oppose them.

  1. we probably ought to know a lot by now about what doesn’t work with representative democracy. But the experiment resulting in the learning of it left us with an entrenched power elite we probably don’t have the capability of ridding ourselves of. By any means at all. Which renders the discussion moot from any practical perspective.

    Career politicians don’t work as a way of running a representative democracy. But they do work pretty well as a means of destroying the ability to find some alternative.

    • The experiment was worth trying, just as it was with term limits. having 50 labratories means that we can look around and see how things work – or don’t. For that matter, Canada’s experiences with various types of legislation might also inform us of how well an idea might work out if we tried it. (Canada was an example Gov. Dewey cited in opposing the outlawing of the Communits Party in his debate with Gov. Stassen.)

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