Archive for August, 2011

The Defects of the Articles of Confederation, Part 7

Defects_of_the_Articles_of_Confederation_7   <== PDF version

A republican political system is one in which a large fraction of the general population exerts power indirectly through representatives of their choice.  The great attraction of a republic is that those representatives will, over the long run, reflect the views of a majority of the people, but at the same time, will tend to attenuate excessive demands by the public in times of difficulty or uncertainty. A republic is therefore somewhere in the center of the styles of political organization.  At one end are the forms in which power is concentrated in a few people.   Among these are: a) a dictatorship or absolute monarchy, in which one person has nearly all the power; b) a monarchy and hereditary nobility composed of a small but stable number of people; and c) ruling oligarchies, in which power is assumed by a small number of people who are not members of a permanent class.  At the other extreme is pure democracy, in which every eligible person has a direct voice in public affairs.

There are two main classes of systems that can be correctly called republics. In the first type, a purely federative style, the members of the federation are actually subordinate political divisions.  Each political subdivision chooses delegates to represent it at an upper political level.  In the second type, the general public chooses delegates to the top political level in their capacity as individuals.  A mixture of these prevailed under the Articles of Confederation: the eligible voting public, in their capacity as individuals, chose delegates to their state legislatures; those state legislators in turn chose delegates to Congress.  In Congress, each state had an equal vote.  At the state level then, it was of the second type of republic, but at the national level, was purely federative.   The provision is found in the first portion of Article V:

Article V.  For the more convenient management of the general interests of the United States, delegates shall be annually appointed in such manner as the legislature of each State shall direct, to meet in Congress on the first Monday in November, in every year, with a power reserved to each State to recall its delegates, or any of them, at any time within the year, and to send others in their stead for the remainder of the year.

            No State shall be represented in Congress by less than two, nor by more than seven members; and no person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years; nor shall any person, being a delegate, be capable of holding any office under the United States, for which he, or another for his benefit, receives any salary, fees or emolument of any kind.

            Each State shall maintain its own delegates in a meeting of the States, and while they act as members of the committee of the States.

            In determining questions in the United States, in Congress assembled, each State shall have one vote.

It is clear that such a system is republican in the sense that the public chose representatives at the state level who in turn represented the state in Congress.  The people thus had an indirect choice in who represented them in Congress.  This is a satisfactory system, because ultimately the people are able to determine the makeup of Congress, although the process is one step removed from direct election.  But, if we recall the basic premise of a republic, that the views of a majority of the people will usually prevail, it is equally clear that a purely federative system such s the Articles can maintain this premise only if each state has approximately the same population. Such was not the case with the original thirteen states.  As Hamilton pointed out in The Federalist #22, seven states (Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and South Carolina) could constitute a majority of votes in Congress, yet their combined population was not more than a third of the entire population.  On the face of it, there was no remedy for this problem other than the hope that these states would have such diverse interests that they would not combine together, thus requiring that some other combination of states vote one way or the other, and that by this means, opinions shared by of a majority of the population could be expressed.  It is true that these seven states rarely agreed, so little harm was done, but it was accidental, not by virtue of the system.

The Articles did contain one other provision that tended to mitigate this problem somewhat, at least at first glance.  It is found in the second-to-last paragraph of Article IX:

            The United States, in Congress assembled, shall never engage in war, nor grant letters of marque and reprisal in time of peace, nor enter into any treaties or alliances, nor coin money, nor regulate the value thereof, nor ascertain the sums and expenses necessary for the defense and welfare of the United States, or any of them, nor emit bills, nor borrow money on the credit of the United States, nor appropriate money nor agree upon the number of vessels of war to be built or purchased, or the number of land or sea forces to be raised, nor appoint a commander-in-chief of the army or navy, unless nine States assent to the same, nor shall a question on any other point, except for adjourning from day to day, be determined, unless by the votes of a majority of the United States, in Congress assembled.

As seen here, concurrence of nine of the thirteen states was required to enact legislation on the important issues, such as treaties, coining money and issuing currency, and military expenditures.  In this way, the defect mentioned earlier was avoided: any nine states, including the seven whose population totaled only one-third, would likely constitute a majority of the people.  Secondly, history shows that requiring a supermajority on important issues having a great impact on the whole is an excellent idea.  But the wide diversity of state populations, the provincial outlook of many states, and the nine-of-thirteen rule sometimes led to a pernicious defect in the operation of the Articles when taken together.  For, if nine states were required to pass significant legislation, a combination of five states, whose combined population may total only 20% of the entire American population, could prevent necessary legislation from being passed – rule by the minority, contrary to the basic goal of a republic.  It was similar to, but not quite as bad as the Polish system, which required unanimity on every issue.

Two examples illustrate the problem.  In 1784, Congress was deprived of a quorum to do business from 11 Aug to 30 Nov because three New England states decided not to attend.  An even worse example was a vote taken on 23 Apr 1784 regarding the administration of western lands. The issue was whether slavery would be allowed in those territories.  Because not all the states were present this vote required 7 of 10 states to retain a previous resolution that prohibited slavery. New Jersey’s lone delegate refused to vote, and the delegation from North Carolina was divided.  So, the previous resolution was repealed by the votes of three states: Virginia, South Carolina, and Maryland; thus three states, with a combined population very much in the minority compared to the whole, was able to re-institute slavery in all the western territories.  Fortunately, this act of 1784 was superseded by the Northwest Ordinance of 13 Jul 1787.

The U. S. Constitution as proposed in 1787 preserved the excellent feature of a two-thirds requirement to confirm treaties in the Senate, which represented the states in their sovereign capacity.  But to avoid the main representative defect discussed here, most other legislation was to be decided by a simple majority in both branches of Congress: the House, which represents the people through their directly-elected representatives, and the Senate representing the states.  In this way, the sentiments of a majority of the people, through representation in the House, are always guaranteed a voice in every vote.  These provisions lay out a workable framework by cannot address the case wherein the interests of the members of Congress diverge from the interests of the people; there is no cure for that except elections.

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A Note on the Budget Impasse, Part 2

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We’ve all heard the news about the “budget deal”.  Congress passed, and the President signed, the “Budget Control Act of 2011”, which averts the immediate prospect of a “default on the federal government’s financial obligations” by raising the “debt ceiling” about “$2.4 trillion” while “cutting spending” by a guaranteed $0.9 trillion over ten years, plus an additional $1.2 trillion in “additional cuts” which are to be specified by a “Select Committee” required to report its recommendations by 23 Nov 2011; if this Committee cannot agree, or Congress does not pass a list of “spending cuts”, then the $1.2 trillion in “spending cuts” will go into effect “across-the-board”, “divided evenly” between “security” and “non-security”.

Before we celebrate too much, let’s keep in mind that the federal government was already planning on spending levels that would increase the national debt from about $14.3 trillion to about $24 trillion over the next ten years.  Secondly, “discretionary” refers to all the things the Congress has allowed itself year-to-year control over, which happen to be all the things authorized by the U. S. Constitution.  Third, “non-security” is a code word for “entitlements”, often called “mandatory” spending because the payments are automatic, even though no such power to enact them is mentioned in the U. S. Constitution.  So, “discretionary” spending refers to all the things that the government is constitutionally authorized to do, “mandatory” spending is all the things the government is not constitutionally authorized to do.  If that seems strange to you, rest assured that it makes perfect sense to the people in Washington.  Fourth, “default” means that the government would not have the cash flow to meet all the promises it has made, and would therefore have resulted in politicians actually having to make all those “tough choices” they always brag about.  Fifth, Congress has traditionally changed the rules on these types of deals after the fact; usually the overall spending goes up no matter what.  Sixth, for those unfamiliar with it, a debt ceiling is the total amount of debt the government allows itself to obligate the taxpayers in the long run.

With these useful definitions in mind, let me restate my opening paragraph again, but this time the phrases in quotes will be in accordance with their true meaning:

We’ve all heard the news about the “smoke-and-mirrors swindle”.  Congress passed, and the President signed, the “Business as Usual Act of 2011”, which averts the immediate prospect of a “politician having to do his job” by raising the “actual total debt” to about $21.9 trillion while “pretending to cut spending through promises to reduce the rate of increase” by a guaranteed $0.9 trillion over ten years, plus an additional $1.2 trillion in “accounting gimmicks” which are to be specified by a “bipartisan group of entrenched party hacks” required to report its recommendations by 23 Nov 2011; if this Committee cannot agree, or Congress does not pass a list of “less-than-desired-increased-spending-levels”, then the $1.2 trillion in “less-than-desired-increased-spending-levels” will go into effect “targeted at enemies”, “according to which faction has the political advantage” between “constitutionally necessary tasks, which they don’t care about” and “entitlements, which they are afraid to discuss”.

As I speculated in my first essay on this subject (11 Jul 2011), this bill is full of the usual deceptions, delays, and artifices.  There will come a day, however, when real choices have to be made.  The longer it is put off, the more painful it will be.  As the people in Washington seem to be comfortable with these do-nothing illusions, they will no doubt continue to do so for as long as they can borrow another dime, after which there will be a Very Unpleasant Reckoning.

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