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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  November 30, 2009; 9:32 AM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Jeez, Ezra, this is pretty ridiculous stuff. Yes, the House is important, but "the Senate doesn't get a special power of its own" -- really, Ezra? Then that must be the House that confirms all those cabinet officials & federal judges. Not to mention the House's role in ratifying treaties!


Posted by: charlie14 | November 30, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

"it is not how the Founders intended for things to go"

Ezra Scalia! Who knew?!

Posted by: ostap666 | November 30, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

*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.*

Will they? They might also point out that one of the failures of the Articles of Confederation was the lack of a strong executive, and the Constitution was an effort to rectify that error.

And whatever the original intentions, the public and even the politicians like their executive leaders.

Posted by: constans | November 30, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Isn't it also sort of important to mention that the Senate wasn't even supposed to be elected by the people? Our political system would look FAR different if State governments were still electing our Senators.

Posted by: spotatl | November 30, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

"the Senate doesn't get a special power of its own."

This really needs to be fixed, and Ezra should be embarrassed. Who confirms treaties? Who has the power to "advise and consent" on judges and cabinet appointments? And of course, the House merely impeaches, the Senate gets to convict.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | November 30, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

Since I'm not a white male property owner, and in fact even further since I was considered merely 3/5 of a human being at the signing of the Constitution I'm hardly concerned as to the extent that this country isnt faithful to the intent of the Founders.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | November 30, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

The President has become so central because military empires don't do legislatures. Aren't we used to that yet? Congress is a nice circus for the proles and a few pompous asses who get to posture in it.

Posted by: janinsanfran | November 30, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

In the UK, the convention was established in the 1920s that the House of Lords would not use its power to prevent legislation that the governing party had promised in its election manifesto. The thinking was that the unelected Upper House had a legitimate role to prevent a governing majority from abusing its power (since there were no other checks and balances) but it shouldn't prevent the majority from doing what it was specifically elected to do. That's how very progressive policies could be enacted despite a very conservative Upper House.

The US is now in exactly that situation (the Senate is not technically unelected but it is unrepresentative). Health care reform is what Obama and the Democrats were specifically elected to get done. A vast majority of Americans want heath care reform. Obstructionists are perverting the democratic process. The problems with Republicans is that they do not believe in democracy - even less so than British aristocrats did in the 1920s. If they supported democracy, they would accept majority legislation as legitimate even if they disagreed with it. This is the point that Democrats should stress: elections matter.

Posted by: carbonneutral | November 30, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

The Capitol building used to have its own prison, I'll note, to throw people in who were deemed "in contempt of Congress."

Posted by: Bertilak | November 30, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

" a big reason that the Senate has stepped to the forefront of modern politics is that it's less democratic than the House"

Though more democratic than it used to be, which raises the hypothetical of whether the same powers would be tolerated in a Senate made up of appointees from state legislatures.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | November 30, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

The President has become so powerful because presidential elections are the only opportunity to assemble governing coalitions at the national level. The only time that either party can claim an electoral mandate is when its presidential candidate wins (and not always then). Even with a 2-party system (or perhaps especially with the current 2-party system) Congressional elections are too localized for either party to claim a mandate solely by winning a majority of House seats. A country this size (both in territory and population) with so many regional interests would be ungovernable without presidential elections. It's nearly ungovernable as it is.

Now, if we had a parliamentary system ....

Posted by: ghall5 | November 30, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I agree with charlie14 and Hopeful9 above. Popped to my mind as well, and I tend to think that Ezra knows this. They hit on the key points:

* Confirms Officers of the United States (Judges, Ambassadors, Heads of Departments, etc)
* Ratify Treaties
* Trials of Impeachments

The first one has been in the news a bit given some foot dragging.


Posted by: toshiaki | November 30, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

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