In the first lecture of Hillsdale College’s new, free online course about Congress, Dr. Larry Arnn explains the legislative branch’s intended purpose, and how our modern legislators have failed to fulfill it.
Watch the trailer for this new online course and sign up to follow along with me here.
Humans have a unique ability to deliberate. We can think through the consequences of our decisions and picture these consequences playing out in the future. We can debate with other humans and iron out our ideas with reason.
Aristotle wrote that we deliberate not about ends, but about means: “For a doctor does not deliberate whether he shall heal, nor an orator whether he shall convince, nor a statesman whether he shall produce law and order, nor does anyone else deliberate about his end.” This is a simplistic way to describe how Congress is supposed to work, but it’s this simple idea on which Alexander Hamilton hinged Federalist No. 1.
In his introduction to “The Federalist Papers,” Hamilton discusses two options. For the people to choose a constitution in which they are responsible for deliberating for themselves, “from reflection and choice,” or to be governed by those given power by birth or by “force.”
James Madison believed it was good that our country was physically big because it would encourage more deliberation and, thus better laws. A bigger country meant more people. If policy decisions were going to affect the whole country, it meant that you had to talk to and convince many people that your policy was good for the whole country. This required your reason and speech to be more candid, and more applicable to a general population.
Sadly, modern congressmen and women do not debate and deliberate much with one another. Both the House and the Senate are more often than not empty, with members speaking only to a handful of people in the entire chamber. It’s difficult to have a debate with other members when they aren’t in the room.
Winston Churchill believed the structural design of the House of Commons encourages debate between opposing parties. Each party sits on opposite sides of the room, directly facing each other. For a politician trying to argue his point, knowing that many people who disagree with him are sitting directly across the hall, forces him to make a more convincing argument and spur a more thoughtful debate. And every time a member walks in, he or she must choose which side he or she is on. If a member were to change his party or views, he must physically walk across the aisle.
Churchill argued this in his “A Sense of Crowd and Urgency” speech to the House of Commons after bombs had destroyed the original chamber in 1941:
The semi-circular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes. I am a convinced supporter of the party system in preference to the group system. I have seen many earnest and ardent Parliaments destroyed by the group system. The party system is much favoured by the oblong form of Chamber. It is easy for an individual to move through those insensible graduations from the Left to Right but the act of crossing the Floor is one which requires serious consideration.
A congressmen’s office used to be his desk in the chamber, listening to the various statesmen, arguing with other members, and creating historic pieces of legislation. They had their committees, but those were not permitted to meet when Congress was in session. Today, C-SPAN zooms in so viewers can’t see the empty room members of Congress are “arguing” with. This is no longer the deliberative body Hamilton said our Constitution ought to rely on.
Congress has given their authority away by not physically showing up to debate, which is slow, painful work. It’s much easier and faster to add laws to our Federal Register through the president, but that’s a much longer lecture for another time. Responsibility to restore the power dynamics the founders intended is on the shoulders of the legislative branch. This reform starts with thinking, talking, arguing, and deliberating together about our futures again.