On Congressional Supremacists, Democracy and Madison

The title of this planting is identical to one at PoliBlog, and the context of what follows will be more clear if you head over there and read Steven’s very thoughtful post, criticizing some (including one of his readers) who prefer a more “authoritarian” (or I might say “Latin American“) variant of elected presidency.

In fact, what is below is simply a comment I posted at PB, but which seemed appropriate here (and happens to be the topic of a talk I am giving today):

Don’t forget that Madison was not only a congressional supremacist, but a House supremacist. Federalist 10, written before the Convention, is all about making a single chamber dominant over an “extended republic” because only by having one deliberative body that balances the “passions and interests” of a large community can the danger of “faction” (majority or minority) be checked.

When he put this into practice through his proposed constitution (known as the Virginia Plan), the executive would have been selected by Congress. Both houses of congress would have had membership based on state population, and Senators were to be elected by the House, out of nominations sent by the respective state legislatures. There was no veto as we know it, though the President could have convened a Council of Revision (judges) to consider whether a bill was constitutional. Even if it said it was not, a majority (not two thirds, but 50%+1) could override the Council’s veto attempt.

Federalist 51 came only afterwards, once Madison’s effort to implement the Virginia Plan was thwarted by small states, which preferred to demolish the whole concept of the Union rather than surrender their equality of representation in at least one house of congress. Only when thwarted did Madison turn to institutional checks and balances, as a way to invigorate the executive (though not as much as authoritarians like Honza–or Alito, for that matter) would like, against a congress that no longer looked like the one Madison wanted in Federalist 10.

Thus one can be a House supremacist and a Madisonian. Just as Madison himself was.

The above leans heavily on an excellent chapter on Madison’s political theory by my colleague, Sam Kernell.

6 thoughts on “On Congressional Supremacists, Democracy and Madison

  1. Did you see John Bolton on The Daily Show a while back? I was flored to see someone so adamantly defend executive supremacy using arguments that O’Donnell would only describe as “delegative democracy” (like when he argued that “democratic theory” meant that the president should be able to rule w/o much congressional or bureaucratic interference). I wondered what you thought about it.


  2. Madison’s ideas seem fairly heavily influenced by the constitutional monarchy/parliamentary democracy that he was breaking away from. I have to think there is a chance that his idea would have evolved on similar lines to that of a Parliamentary democracy, with strong party discipline. After all our (Canadian) system is supposed to have a stronger legislative presence, when in effect we only elect trained monkeys.

    And funny that the veto structure looks the same as Benin, mentioned further down…


  3. Chris, yes, I have noted that the Virginia Plan might very well have evolved into a parliamentary system with disciplined parties, along the lines of our neighbor to the north.

    It is worth adding that the UK in the 18th century was a long way from being a democracy! There was a separation of powers, with the monarch still heading the executive and having a full veto. So Madison, in Federalist 10 and the Virginia Plan, was very much concerned with the risk of an overbearing executive.

    Regarding Benin, yes, it shares with the Virginia Plan the notion of the executive having a very weak veto. However, unlike the Virginia Plan, but more like the US Constitution, Benin’s president is not elected by the legislature.


    • Hi MSS, would you happen to have a working link in your reply? – “Virginia Plan might very well have evolved into a parliamentary system”

      Would be interested in reading your thoughts of how the US could have been a parliamentary democracy, but the link no longer works. Thnx!


    • Britain was a long way from parliamentarism as well as democracy. All prime ministers from 1795 to 1828 were appointed on the basis that that they would not prise parliamentary reform or Catholic emancipation. Catholic relief received royal assent in 1829 only because the duke of Wellington threatened to resign if George IV did not agree. William IV assented to the Great Reform Act in 1832 under similar pressure and then dismissed the government in 1834 without explanation. The 1835 general election, which the dismissed Whigs won by a landslide, established the principle that the Crown cannot, under normal circumstances, dismiss a government with a parliamentary majority.

      Oddly enough Jewish relief did not pass until 1858, although that was not because of royal opposition.

      There is an alarmingly common belief in the US that parliamentarism is easier to operate than presidentialism. Anyone who lived through 1975 in Australia is fully aware that parliamentarism depends on considerably more complex norms than even the US version of presidentialism.

      If the November election ends in a constitutional catastrophe with two people claiming to be president, as seems likely, we will all be holding our breath.


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