Smaller Government: Congress
The first of this blueprint series
Conservatives often champion the idea of smaller government—a government that has limited powers, empowering the common man and woman to self-rule. This was the foundation of our republic, which was influenced by the British system of checks and balances, allowing the people to self-govern. Conservatives also believe the role of the government is to protect the negative rights of the people that are inherently given to individuals by our Creator, an attitude enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. But given how large the government has become, most don’t have an idea what that would look like in the 21st century.
Americans have become accustomed to a strong, centralized power that provides safety nets, forcing the conversation of whether socialism or communism should be the next Pokémon evolution of our country’s government. There are some ideas that have floated around, and I want to not only explore those ideas, but also to provoke thought on other possibilities—like, perhaps, amending the Constitution and staying true to our country’s foundation. There there are some ideas that have been brought to the surface that I will rebuke; others, a renaissance that was once constitutional, but through the amendment process changed the limits of the government.
This will be a limited series in the coming weeks as midterms approach. Conservatives need to provide the public with a visual of what it means to have a smaller government. This is a blueprint of a smaller government in the 21st century.
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This topic practically gets a universal consensus from the American public across the political spectrum. There was a time when term limits could be imposed on representatives at the state level, but the Supreme Court struck this down in 1995 (Inc. v. Thornton), stating that barriers could not be imposed beyond what the Constitution outlined. That said, why didn’t America’s Founding Fathers impose term limits on Congress in the Constitution? Term limits were a topic of heavy debate at the Constitutional Convention, for all three branches of government. And as with any idea in a room full of people, there were varying opinions on the subject. There was *a lot* of compromising along the way, as these men were tasked with establishing continuity and a stronger central government; however, for the sake of this article, let us investigate how they decided *not* to establish congressional term limits.
The majority were not in favor of term limits. They had a belief that the American people were the best measurement of accountability towards their congressional leaders. Additionally, experience mattered to the delegates of the Convention. James Madison, an opponent of congressional term limits, wrote in the Federalist Papers, “[A] few of the members of Congress will possess superior talents; will by frequent re-elections, become members of long standing; will be thoroughly masters of the public business, and perhaps not unwilling to avail themselves of those advantages. The greater the proportion of new members of Congress, and the less the information of the bulk of the members, the more apt they be to fall into the snares that may be laid before them.” Oddly enough, this was a rejection of the Articles of Confederation that had imposed term limits on the Continental Congress in 1781. This term limit stated, “No person shall be capable of being a delegate for more than three years in any term of six years.” Given the problems that arose from the Articles of Confederation, it is understandable why no term limits were imposed; yet what worked in 1778 has only partially transcended to the 21st century.
There is an advantage to having experience, but what the Founding Fathers did not foresee was the day when delegates would abuse the system to the point of fixing results in their favor. This is not to say that the American people (who, up until recently, have undervalued the responsibility of electing congressional officials) don’t share some of the blame for this corruption. Yet, shouldn’t there be a check, in case delegates abuse the trust of the American people? In the spirit of the principles of our nation, yes. The question remains: what would that look like?
Here is a proposal for such a constitutional amendment—to have congressional term limits, by combining experience with the importance of a check in power. This is just one idea, so take it with a grain of salt:
Congressperson may serve, but is at the federal level limited to, 12 years in the House of Representatives, for a total of 6 terms.
Congressperson may serve, but is at the federal level limited to, 18 years in the Senate, for a total of 3 terms.
Federal congressional leaders from both chambers of Congress will be subject to the term limits once in effect.
States may also impose term limits for state assembly members, state officials, and local leaders in counties, but must adhere to their state constitutional amendment process. Anything not covered in this amendment concerning state powers will be subject to Article 10.
Qualifications and Pay
Common sense says that members of Congress should have something to hold them in check from giving themselves bonuses. After all, they are public servants. Sure, while they are in the District of Columbia, perhaps they will need to have some accommodations to cover the cost of living; but how much of that should be the taxpayer’s concern? Should this position be considered a full-time job? The majority of Congress members have another profession, but should they be required to keep that job? How did Congress start when the Constitution was first enforced, and how did we end up here?
This was another subject the Founding Fathers touched upon: should public servants get paid at all? Benjamin Franklin was an opponent of letting Congress be paid, stating that if they were, Americans would get representatives with “bold and the violent” personalities, engaged in “selfish pursuits.” They concluded by allowing financial compensation as stated in Article I, Section 6 of the U.S. Constitution, "ascertained by law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States." However, the 27th Amendment ensured that any raise passed can only take effect at the start of a new session, never during one. The thought was that only the wealthy would be able to serve Congress, because they can afford not to be paid. How accurate was this assumption? Was Benjamin Franklin’s concern a hyperbole?
From 1789–1815, the pay was abysmal, making only a few dollars daily and forcing them to work other jobs to pay their bills. In fact, 1815 was when Congress established a salary of $1,500, which in today's equivalent would be $22,944.11. That’s about the pay of an enlisted active-duty member in the military, in the low ranks. And, as one might expect with that kind of salary, Congress members were still forced to have other jobs. In 1935, at $10K (which is $200K today), this was still the case. As of this year, besides the House Speaker and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, the salary of a congressperson is $174K, not considering the 21% pay raise they gave themselves in the Ukraine Foreign Aid Package in 2022. Those other positions get paid higher, with the House Speaker having a salary of about $220K. This doesn’t get into the extra benefits they have, without taxpayer consent (taxation without representation). If Congress works for the people, and are hired by the people through the electoral process, then shouldn’t the citizens themselves be the ones to determine a pay raise? Should this be left in the hands of Congress at all? This question is fundamental in whether congressional delegates should be required to have other jobs as part of a qualification. Here is a proposed amendment:
Congressional delegates from both chambers must possess and maintain a profession outside of the congressional chambers. They are forbidden from practicing as lobbyists as a secondary job. Delegates cannot be paid by lobbyists as a means of constituting a secondary job, either. A profession outside the congressional realms includes anything that serves the public through the private enterprise system, the Department of Defense, healthcare, or academia.
Any citizen who aspires to run for office must have a minimum of 16 years without any association with lobbying, to minimize conflicts of interest.
The congressional base salary must not exceed the average accumulated secondary salaries of each delegate.
As part of the electoral process enshrined in the Constitution, the individual citizen will have the power to vote in the ballot box on whether Congress has earned a pay increase, stagnation, or decrease; but the increase or decrease of the base salary shall not exceed the inflation rate.
The enforcement of this amendment shall take effect two presidential cycles after its passage.
This is where there may be some pushback in regards to this section; but it’s worth exploring, because this dramatically shifted the power dynamic between the states and the federal government. This fits with the article because it deals with how Congress is elected, and how they obtain power. When the Founding Fathers debated how the House of Representatives and Senate were going to function, they came to a compromise of allowing the House to be directly voted in by the people, and the Senate was voted in by state legislators (who were voted in by the people in the state). This was practiced until 1913, when, during the Progressive Era, President Woodrow Wilson signed the 17th Amendment. So, what’s the reasoning for and against this Amendment? Has it aged well into the 21st century?
As with other matters, this was debated in the Constitutional Convention. James Madison, an opponent of state legislators voting in senators to the Capitol, wrote in the Federalist Papers that this would be a “double advantage,” both “favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former.” Proponents for state legislators choosing senators, such as George Manson, argued this was a necessary tool to defend against federal overreach. Wendell Pierce, another proponent for state legislators choosing senators, expressed “that the contrast between a state legislatively-appointed Senate and a popularly-elected House would increase the types of interests represented in the federal government. By requiring the consent of two different constituencies to any legislation—the people’s representatives in the House and the state legislatures in the Senate—the composition of the Senate was seen as essential to the system of bicameralism, which would require ‘the concurrence of two distinct bodies in schemes of usurpation or perfidy.” Ultimately, this won out, but problems arose that eventually led to the 17th Amendment.
Politicians started to ignore the Constitution, to keep a long story short. This was known as “public canvassing,” where politicians seeking Senate seats began campaigning for state legislative candidacies, reducing the value of state legislators in elections. The most famous example was the race between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass, when neither candidate was on the ballot for state legislator. Then by the end of the 19th century and early into the 20th, 28 states adopted the “Oregon System,” in which there would be direct elections for those seeking the office of Senator—further eroding the power of state legislators. This was the result of having scenarios of vacant seats. Delaware went four years without having a seat in the Senate because of the bureaucracy that was occurring between state legislators. Thus, ultimately the 17th Amendment took the process out of state legislators’ hands completely, while allowing the governors to fill in vacancies temporarily until a special election is held. Proponents say this allows state legislators to focus on local matters instead of concerning themselves with the national. Was this the right decision?
It would appear that the 17th Amendment is common sense—why shouldn’t the people directly vote senators into office? However, this removed a check and balance between the state and federal governments. The solution should have been to hold those states accountable and enforce the right of state legislators to choose their senators. The senators who run at the federal level do not concern themselves with the local politics of the state they are representing. Shouldn’t they understand what’s happening in their own state if they are going to make decisions that will ultimately affect the locals? State and national politics are not exclusive, but interconnected. Thus, an argument should be made to repeal the 17th Amendment by returning the power to state legislators, while leaving the governor to maintain the right to temporarily fill in a vacancy. Additionally, to avoid a long-term vacancy, add an amendment to allow the shoo-in vacancy to remain in effect until the state legislators resolve their disputes. And if it reaches the end of the six-year term and state legislators fail to choose, the governor’s power shall be extended to permanently fill in the vacancy to serve the six years. This allows Americans to have senators who prioritize their state needs, as there have been a plethora of instances in which the interest of the average American differed from the interests of those in D.C.
Read the Bill, Single Issue Bills, and Call to Vote
This is an interesting conversation because in theory, voters assume every delegate votes on proposals, and reads each bill entirely. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In an interview with Tim Pool, congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene explained how Congress runs the process of passing bills. Here’s the scoop—it’s worth investigating.
In the House, there are different committees, each with their specific focus. The majority party has all the power, with the minority being there for display. In one of these committees, there are ten people, evenly split, who vote on bills through what is known as “voice votes.” They debate the bills, then vote, needing just five from the majority party to vote “yay” to pass—without being required to debate it with the rest of the delegates. In order to have every delegate’s vote on the record, someone in that room has to “call to vote,” and then it gets put up for debate for every congressional member in the chamber. This begs the question: shouldn’t that be a given? Shouldn’t the people have the right to know how their representative is voting?
This brings up another interesting phenomenon in modern Congress. The length of the bills can be hundreds or thousands of pages long; and do they read the bill in its entirety? Not in the slightest. They will claim the proposal by a different name, but when you begin to look at the finer details, other subjects are addressed that have no relevance to the situation, or there are matters that aren’t brought to light despite the public rhetoric. This was evident when Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped pass Obamacare, stating that they’d know the details of the bill *after* its passage. Shouldn’t every Congress member know the details of the bill first? Shouldn’t the details of the bill be relevant to the issue at hand? The asinine detail in Obamacare was the exemption for political leaders’ participation in it. Imagine if they had to read that part out loud! Perhaps there needs to be a constitutional amendment to hold our delegates accountable in ways the Founding Fathers didn’t imagine. These proposed amendments would make answering these questions mandatory:
No delegate shall be excused from being present for the debate of the bills, unless a severe illness, natural disaster, or deathly matter warrants an excuse. Voice Votes shall be terminated, with every proposal being a mandatory Call to Vote.
During these debates, at least one congressional member in the chamber must read out loud every word of the bill before it can be voted on, with every member present (with the exceptions mentioned). These debates and readings must be publicly available *before* the Call to Vote. There will be a minimum of a one week delay before the Call to Vote, to allow the representatives and their voters to discuss the matters that will affect the American citizens.
The bills must be relevant to the issue at hand (single issue bills).
The bills cannot include exemptions from participation for congressional delegates, their staffers, judges, the president, or the executive cabinet. Any past legislation passage that is an active law which gives those exemptions will no longer be viable, and members must participate with the rest of the U.S. population.
These requirements shall be applied to both chambers of congress.
Failure to meet these requirements shall warrant the impeachment process.
Anything not covered in this amendment shall be subject to Article 10.
This is just the first slice of the pie of what a smaller government should look like in the 21st century. There are many gaps to fill in, but it is our responsibility to think of every avenue as to how the government can become corrupt, just as our Founding Fathers did when they had their Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. They understood human nature and how power can corrupt the soul. It is possible to have another Convention of States, in case one didn’t know; which, if Americans were to be realistic, will be the only way to have our Constitution amended at this point. This process is also enshrined in the Constitution in case that day were to come, as our Founding Fathers predicted human nature. What other amendments should be added into the Constitution to hold Congress in check? What has human nature taught us since our country’s founding?
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