The neglected House
I should have paid better attention in high school civics, as this paragraph, from Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein's "The Broken Branch," came as a surprise to me:
The Speaker of the House is the first government official mentioned in the Constitution. Even though the practical reality is that the Speaker is selected by the majority party from its ranks and is its leader, the Speaker is elected by a vote of the whole House and represents the whole House. Underscoring their desire to have a speaker above normal party politics, the framers established that the Speaker does not even have to be a member of the House.
Well, Lady Gaga for Speaker of the House, then! Or maybe Sully Sullenberger. Or maybe they could be judges in the greatest reality show of all time: "So, You Think You Can Be Speaker?"
More seriously, it's worth reminding folks that the legislative branch is the first branch mentioned in the Constitution, and the powers of the House are outlined before the Senate is discussed. Scholars of this stuff will tell you that the Founders meant for Congress to be more powerful than the president and the House to be more powerful than the Senate. The proof is in the pudding, or at least in the Constitution: Congress can write and pass legislation, while the president can merely veto, and his veto can be overridden. "All bills for raising Revenue" must originate in the House, while the Senate doesn't get a special power of its own. The hierarchy is pretty clear, and makes sense: The House is, after all, the most democratic body in our government.
But that hierarchy has been tossed on its head. For all practical purposes, the House is less powerful than the modern Senate and Congress has taken a back seat to the president. The reasons for the preeminence of the president are complicated, but a big reason that the Senate has stepped to the forefront of modern politics is that it's less democratic than the House, and thus most attention focuses on whether it can pass legislation, and most compromises focus on helping it pass legislation. That's unavoidable given the filibuster's centrality to the system, but it's not a good state of affairs, and it is not how the Founders intended for things to go.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon.
November 30, 2009; 9:32 AM ET
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