Steve G.

Posts Tagged ‘founders’

The American Vice Presidency… Graveyard of the Constitution

In Congress, Democracy, Democrats, History, Law, Libertarian, Politics, Republican, US Government on August 27, 2009 at 7:12 pm

America’s first Vice President, John Adams, described the office as “the most insignificant office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived”. When Daniel Webster was offered the nomination of Vice President, he said “I do not intend to be buried until I am dead”. Perhaps the most succinct assessment of the office was given by Texan John Nance Garner, a former and powerful Speaker of The House of Representatives and Vice President under FDR for two full terms, who claimed that the office wasn’t “worth a bucket of piss”.

In many ways, the office of Vice President of The United States can be seen as the most singular indication of the noble goals and yet practical failure of The United States Constitution, and its fate was sealed before the 19th Century even began. While there might have once been a chance for the Vice Presidency to have been an office of viable contribution to the functioning of The United States’ government, there are five key moments in early American history which, I believe, combined to relegate the office itself to impotence and insignificance only moderated by either the good will of any particular President or by the vacation of the office of President and subsequent elevation of a Vice President to that office. The first of these moments was the creation of the office itself (1787).  The idea was that it would be held by a major statesman, the candidate for President who came in second and who would, for the greater good of his nation, join the administration of the victor.  Yet within this idea was still recognition of the reality of opposition and the understanding that you would not want to give the primary challenger of the President any real power with which to work against the Chief Executive.  Thus was an office created in which the primary requirement was, apparently, to have a pulse. 

While, primarily because of their revolutionary credentials, Washington’s Vice President, John Adams succeeded him as President, and then Adams’ Vice President, Thomas Jefferson succeeded him, the office of Vice President has not been seen as a natural stepping stone to the Presidency.  After Jefferson, and after the adoption of the 12th Amendment to The Constitution (which provided for the direct election of the Vice President) the only Vice Presidents who have been elected to be President WITHOUT FIRST having already assumed the office through the death or resignation of the previous holder of that office have been Martin Van Buren (1836), Richard Nixon (1968), and George H. W. Bush (1988).  Furthermore, of those three men, Richard Nixon was not the current Vice President when he was elected, having lost to John Kennedy in 1960.  Thus, the two men after Jefferson who were elected to the office of President while holders of the office of Vice President served only two terms between them for a total of eight years, and the three men combined for 4 terms and less than 14 years out of the whole of the history of The United States.  By contrast, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and James Buchanan (the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 15th Presidents) all served as Secretary of State and served as President for eight terms and a total of 32 years, while several others served as Ambassadors or envoys to other sovereign nations.  So, we can see that diplomatic credentials have been seen as better qualifying a candidate to be President than serving as Vice President has been.

The second moment in history’s conspiracy to insure the insignificance of the office of Vice President was George Washington’s view that the office was a part of the Legislative branch of the government rather than part of the Executive branch (1789). As a result, Washington not only did not include Adams in his cabinet meetings or consult him very frequently on matters within the Executive Branch. He believed, in fact, that he was not ALLOWED to do so as part of The Constitution’s requirements for separation of powers. It is impossible to minimize the influence Washington had on establishing the precedents and operational functions of The United States government as established by The Constitution. If any man in history had it in his power to make from nothing a relevant constitutional office of the Vice Presidency, it was Washington; but he did not do so. As aware as the Revolutionary generation was that they were making history, they seemed to have had no awareness of the importance of the precedents which they were establishing every day as part of a continuity of history which would last for centuries.

In many ways, they were making it up as they went along and the openness of the Experiment they had initiated would have permitted them to follow almost any vision that they could have put into practice.

The third moment in this sorry tale was the decision of The Senate to forbid the Vice President from being part of the debates and deliberations of their body (1789). We can never know how much of this decision was inspired by the personal rancor and dislike felt by many members of The Senate for the person of John Adams and how much was an inevitable course which would have been followed no matter who had been The Senate’s first presiding officer.

In the end, it makes little difference. While Washington did not consider the Vice President a member of the Executive Branch, The Senate did not consider the officeholder a contributing part of their august body or, therefore, of the Legislative branch of government. While a man with more people skills and a more stable temperament might have been able to make the Senators accept the Vice President as a full member of The Senate, John Adams was not that man. As Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “It is to be sure a punishment to hear other men talk five hours every day and not be at liberty to talk at all myself, especially as more than half I hear appears to me very young, inconsiderate and inexperienced.” If Washington had made the Vice President insignificant as a member of the Executive branch, The Senate itself made him insignificant as a member of the Legislative branch. All of this, of course, reaches new heights of irony in the person of our former Vice President, Dick Cheney, who has used this ‘confusion’ to declare himself the beneficiary of the rights and privileges of both branches while, at the same time, free of the obligations or restraints upon either branch. The burden of the fourth moment in our tragic history of the establishment of the role of the Vice Presidency falls squarely on the shoulders of the second holder of that office, Thomas Jefferson (1797).

Adams, for all of his faults of personality, truly cared for what was best for the nation he served. He did not plan to treat Jefferson, as Vice President, as he had been treated himself (or, as Tom Lehrer put so humorously in his satirical song about Hubert Humphrey and the treatment of Humphrey as Vice President by Lyndon Johnson as President, “I’ll do unto you as they did unto me.”).  As Joseph Ellis tells so well in his Pulitzer Prize winning book ‘Founding Brothers, Adams fully desired to work with Jefferson to create a bipartisan administration which utilized both of their talents and skills (Chapter Five: The Collaborators). 

He wanted Jefferson to be a functioning member of his cabinet and an active participant in foreign policy efforts. Jefferson, influenced greatly by the advice of James Madison, chose to be a party man and watch the Adams administration fail without him. Jefferson, at this time, chose the good of his party over the good of his nation. After Adams’ desire to give the office a ‘place at the table’, it wasn’t until Warren G. Harding took office in 1921 that a President again made the choice to include his Vice President in his cabinet meetings, and it wasn’t until Richard Nixon’s service under Dwight Eisenhower that a Vice President was given a substantial and public role by the President but, in all cases, up to and including the present, the role and power of a particular Vice President has been dependent upon their President to give it to them.

If the damage done to the office of Vice President was not already irreversible by the election of 1800, that election itself ensured that it was permanent, and the blame for it can be placed on the personage of Aaron Burr. If one wants to make the case that the Adams’ Vice Presidency was not a standard to judge by because of the newness of the office, or that the Jefferson Vice Presidency cannot be used because he was of an opposition political position to his President, then there is no excuse for the damage done to the office by Burr before he was even inaugurated, damage so great, in fact, that the first substantive change to The US Constitution was made to prevent the circumstances from ever again even being possible through the adoption of the 12th Amendment. For the election of 1800, the supporters of Jefferson and his Republican / Anti-Federalist movement conspired to maneuver the election so that their candidates would end up holding the offices of both the Presidency and the Vice Presidency. While they succeeded in the goal of having all of their electors vote for both Jefferson and Burr, they apparently never considered the ramifications of this actually happening. They believed that somehow, without any need to orchestrate it as well, some random elector would cast his vote for Jefferson but not cast their second vote for Burr. The conspiracy, however, was too well planned and the soldiers followed their marching orders without deviation…and Jefferson and Burr ended up exactly tied in the electoral vote totals.

At this point, a good party man would have fallen into line and worked to finish what had been started, but Burr was an opportunist whose personal desires completely overshadowed any belief he may have had in the greater good. When the election went to The House of Representatives, Burr fought to win the Presidency for himself. He almost managed to pull the feat off as it took 36 ballots in The House before Hamilton intervened and one member chose to abstain. Well, after that, what President would trust the man he was stuck with as Vice President? And so, Burr alienated himself from any role in Jefferson’s first administration and The Constitution was changed…and changed VERY quickly.

The new nation went through only four elections, three administrations and 12 years before the first substantial flaw in the design of the governmental structure of The United States had to be addressed. 46 men have been dumped into the graveyard of The Constitution, including 2 men who each served under two different Presidents (George Clinton under Jefferson and Madison, and John C. Calhoun under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson). Except for the ones who eventually became President themselves or who have served in a person’s own lifetime, how many people can name even one of them? The Vice Presidency is a unique office with a unique role in government. If we want evidence of the lack of experience which burdened the men who created The Constitution, all we need do is look at the Office of The Vice President of The United States. However, if we do look at it, we will have done more than most people ever do.

P.S.– It might also be of interest, for anyone who wants to consideration how truly UNimportant the office of Vice President has been to our nation over the entire course of its history, for me to point out that, while we have never had any real period without a President since Washington first took the oath of office in 1889, between the years 1812 (when the office was vacated upon the death of Vice President George Clinton) and 1974 (when the office was vacated by the elevation of Vice President Gerald Ford to the Office of President) (a period of 162 years), there were 18 different times when we were without a Vice President totaling more than 426 months (35.5 years, an average of 23.666 months per vacancy). This includes two periods when the office was vacant for 47 months (out of a 48 month term of office), but does NOT include any periods when the holder of the office just left Washington and ignored his role in government (as, for example, Richard Mentor Johnson did during Van Buren’s administration).

As an indication of how little impact the absence of a Vice President has meant to the functions of our government, I would simply ask how many of you reading this have ever even wondered just how often the office has even been vacant because there WAS no holder of the office?

As a point of useless trivia from an infomaniac, did you know that the first Vice President to die in office (George Clinton) died about a year before the end of his second term (Clinton had served one term as President Jefferson’s second Vice President and his second term as Vice President was consecutive to his first when he was elected to be Vice President under Jefferson’s successor, President James Madison, for Madison’s first term.  For Madison’s second term of office, he ran and served with Vice President Elbridge Gerry, who THEN proceeded to die in office after about a year and a half into his term.  As a result, President James Madison served with a different Vice President for each of his two terms in office and neither of them lived to complete their own terms.

Rhys M. Blavier
Romayor, Texas 
 

Truth, Justice and Honor… but, above all Honor

© copyright 2008 by Rhys M. Blavier
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Thank you for reading this article. Please read my other articles and let me know what you think. I am writing them not to preach or to hear myself think but to try to create dialogs, debates and discussions on the nature of our government and how we can build upon and improve it based on what we have seen and learned over the course of the 225 years of The American Experiment.

How I Think The Constitution Can Be Fixed (Part III [a]: Article I – The Legislative Branch)

In Congress, Corruption, Democracy, Democrats, History, Law, Libertarian, Libertarian Politics, Politics, Republican, US Government on June 1, 2009 at 1:35 am

Congress, The Legislative Branch of The United States of America was, as ‘the people’s house‘, intended to be the most powerful of the three branches of government created by The Constitution… a ‘first among equals‘, as it were.  Of the 4,543 words of The Constitution, the 2,312 words of Article I constitute just over half of the total (50.89%).  Unlike Article II (The Executive Branch) and Article III (The Judicial Brach), Article I deals very much with the actual workings, duties, powers and authorities of Congress.  A primary reason for this, I assume, is that the founders had a long history of experience with operating a working, functioning Congress or Legislature.  They also had more trust of a strong legislative branch than they did of a strong executive branch.

The first representative legislative body established in the American Colonies, in fact, in ANY of the British Colonies, was Virginia’s House of Burgesses, which was created in 1619… 170 years before the creation of Congress under The Constitution.  Before and during the Revolutionary Period, ALL of the American Colonies had functioning state legislatures and, at the national-level, the first Continental Congress had been called in 1765.  Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress ran the nation with a VERY weak Executive, who was appointed by Congress itself to preside over ‘A Committee of The States‘.  The delegates to the Constitutional Convention well understood what a legislative branch could do, although, prior to The Constitution, members of Congress for any state were appointed by the legislatures of that state.  As such, apportionment by census and direct elections of the members of The House of Representatives was their great experiment with a representative legislature.  Members of The Senate, of course, continued to be appointed by each state’s own legislature until the passage of Amendment XVII, which was ratified in 1913 (although some states had been providing for the direct election of their Senators by the people of those states as early as 1907).

It was never the intention of the founders to create a permanently ruling political class.  They envisioned men, who would, for a short period of time, leave their private lives, take up the burden of public service for the good of the nation and then go back to their private lives.  This idea was only one of many visions of theirs that did not survive our national transition from our ‘first generation‘ to our ‘second generation‘ [see ‘Part I‘ of this article for an explanation of my theory of the first and second generational effects].  Many Americans have the mistaken belief that the founders created a two-party system.  This is patently false, but still many of our children are taught it.  The founders tried to create a NO-party system, with the idea that individual members of Congress would band together is short-lived coalitions for each separate issue that came before them.  This is another idea which not only did not survive our nation’s first generation; it did not survive the Washington administration.  This is probably the biggest reason that party politics dominates our government, because The Constitution did not provide any guidelines for or controls / limitations upon them.

Several of my suggested changes will be attempts show how I think that we can restore the founders’ original concept of public service to our government, and show a way to end or, at least, make it more difficult for the continuation of our professional and permanently ruling political class.  These suggestions will be made to try to minimize the amount of time elected officials have to spend in their continuous cycle of staying elected, to maximize their learning curve and effectiveness in office, and to reduce their susceptibility to the corrupting effects of long-term office holding.  They will also have a goal of wanting to breaking the stranglehold which the two major parties have on our government, at all levels, as well as minimizing the power and effect which those at the extreme ends of any political spectrum have on our government.  This is crucial if we are to return our government to a rational level of moderation.

As a general change for ALL elected offices, no one would be allowed to campaign for one office while they are holding another.  If people think that such an allowance is necessary, they could be allowed to run for as MANY offices at one time as they want, but they have to be campaigning on their own time (they, of course, could only accept election to one office if they should win more than one election at the same time… if they do win more than one, though, maybe they should have to pay for any special elections which they necessitate by winning an office they have intention of serving in).  Since all elected officials are elected to serve their constituents by doing a specific job, and not to spend their time on that job trying to keep their current job or trying to get a new one at our expense, once a public office holder is officially a candidate for any national office (the point at which they start raising funds or operating a campaign), they will be REQUIRED to immediately resign any elected office, at ANY level, that they might hold at that time.  This would also help keep the lengths of campaigns down to more reasonable amounts of time as elected officials would be less likely to give up an office in their hand too long before they run for the office in the bush that they want to seek.

Section 2 of Article I lays the groundwork for the composition of The House of Representatives.  Paragraph 1 of Section 2 sets the term of office for members of the House of Representatives at 2 years.  I would change this to 6 year terms, with one third of The House being elected every three years and a one term limit.  This would allow an on-going House with regular turnover and without the turmoil of having to elect ever member of The House and recreating itself every election cycle.  Former Representatives could be elected to additional terms by the people of any particular state that they have served when they have been out of The House for the length of a full term between each term.

Paragraph 2 sets the minimum age for eligibility for election as a Representative at 25.  I would lower this to 20, although with the requirement that being a Representative is a full time job (i.e.  – if someone is a student and is elected, they would have to leave their studies for the duration of their term of office).  We allow citizens to vote at age 18, we let them serve in our military, we require them to pay taxes (which they have to do at ANY age when they earn any money), etc., there is no reason that citizens of that age should not be allowed to elect Representatives of their own age range if they are able to.

Paragraph 3 of Section 2 deals with apportionment of Representatives among the various states.  As we have seen all too frequently, the abilities of modern computing to pinpoint every voter has given the supposedly forbidden practice of gerrymandering an even more frightening and insidious power than it has had in a long time.  That same computing power can allow us to create congressional districts that are of the most compact size and even shape as possible without ANY regard to the politics, or any other discriminating factor, of the citizens of any particular district.  Every state has corners and edges.  All that would have to be done is to program the same computers to start at each corner and create evenly shaped and compact districts as they work in towards the middle of each state.  Alternatively, the first district could start in the middle of a state and work outward.  This would still allow for differing proposals, depending on starting points and merging points, but the test would still be which proposal presents the most precise and evenly shaped districts possible.  Basically, if districts can be created within a smaller or more compact area of a state, you go for the most compact districts possible.  This would not only prevent the parties from manipulating districts in the way that is most advantageous to them, it will prevent them from creating both ‘safe‘ districts (which protect members of either party), and ‘reservation‘ districts (which isolate and limit ethnic voting power overall to specific limited areas).

Paragraph 3 also provides for the total number of Representatives the House.  Its original provision of “The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative;” has been modified by legislation passed in 1911, which capped the total number of Representatives in The House at 435.  One man, one vote‘ was NEVER an intention of the founders (as seen by their plan of equal apportionment of Senators, the guarantee of at least one Representative from each state, and the fact that Congressional districts must be fully contained within their home state) because it was never their desire to allow high population areas to dominate the government at the expense of the rural areas by the simple fact of having more people.  However, it was also not their intention to let rural areas have excessive power by limiting the numbers of Representatives to be divided among the more populous states.  As was seen when Alaska and Hawaii entered the union (the total number of members in Congress was temporarily increased by one for each state UNTIL the next apportionment, at which time it was returned to the 435 Representatives level), the current total is seen as a hard and fast one which is not increased by the admission of additional states.  As a result, with each shift in population and a theoretical continuous expansion of the numbers of states in the Union, the single Representative for the states with the smallest population increase in their own proportional power within Congress.  To counter this, I would propose that the total number of Representatives be equal to ten times the total number of states.  This would mean that every time a new state is admitted, ten Representatives will be added to the total number of Representatives in The House.  Right now, that would result in a total of 500 Representatives, with 50 being taken by guaranteed representation for each state and the other 450 apportioned according to state population sizes.

Paragraph 4 deals with vacancies within The House while Paragraph 5 creates the office of Speaker and allows for The House to create and choose its other officers.  The only change I would make here is that ANY officer of The House (or The Senate) has a responsibility to the nation, as a whole, as well as to their own district’s constituency.  As such, ALL officers of The House or The Senate, from any party, must equally accept feedback, requests, petitions, etc.  from anyone within the nation as they do from anyone within their district.

Section 3 of Article I deals with The Senate.  Paragraph 1 sets the length of term for a Senator at six years.  As with the House, I would increase the lengths of their terms of office to twelve years, with a limit of one term and the passage of a length of time equal to one full term before they can be eligible to run again within their state.  For those of my readers who have caught some of my specific wordings, by the way, these limits would only apply to a candidate in a single particular state if they want to run again in that state.  If someone thinks that they can just pack up and move to another state to get elected again, they would be welcome to try it.  I would love to see the spectacle of hordes of former Congressmen moving constantly between states while trying to convince the voters of their ‘new‘ home states that they are not carpetbaggers who are only looking out for themselves rather than for the citizens that they purport to serve.

Paragraph I also sets the numbers of Senators from each state at two.  I would increase this to three for each state so that every state will have an election turnover of one Senator for every equal third of a term (i.e.  – every four years), which is what is dealt with in Paragraph 2.  Paragraph 3 sets the minimum age of a Senator at 35.  As with The House, I would lower this age by five years to 25 in order to increase the chances for better representation of the younger population of the nation.

Paragraph 4 of Section 3 deals with the role of The Vice President as the President of The Senate.  While I will deal with the larger issue of the office of Vice President when I discuss The Executive Branch, the primary constitutional duty of a Vice President is to be President of The Senate.  This office needs to be a functional part of our government.  [Please see my article on ‘The American Vice Presidency…  Graveyard of the Constitution’.]  While I would still give The Vice President no vote in The Senate except in cases of ties, I would give the office political power in The Senate equal to that of The Speaker in The House.  I would also give The Vice President the freedom to address The Senate under the same rules as any Senator, but with the provision that they must temporarily give up the Presidency of The Senate while speaking on the floor, and maybe with the additional restriction that they must ask the permission of The Senate to be allowed to speak to it from the floor.

Paragraph 5 of Section 3 provides for the creation and selection of other officers for The Senate, including The President pro tempore.  My biggest issue with how Section 5 is fulfilled is that The President pro tempore, the third person in line to the office of President of The United States, has become a meaningless ego job which is simply given to the oldest, most senile member of the majority party.  This Constitutional office needs to be held by the person elected by the whole Senate to be its Floor Leader.  Tell me, honestly, would you have wanted to see a 99 year-old Strom Thurmond succeeding to The Presidency?  What about an 84 year-old Ted Stevens?  Or a 92 year-old Robert Byrd?  The President pro tempore should be the Senator who is leading the legislative agenda on the floor of The Senate, not the one singing ‘I’m a Little Teapot‘ with the Spectre of Death.

 

(This article will be continued in Part III (b), which will continue discussing Article I of The Constitution.)

Rhys M.  Blavier
Romayor, Texas

 

Truth, Justice and Honor… but, above all, Honor

 

© copyright 2009 by Rhys M.  Blavier
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Thank you for reading this article.  Please read my other articles and let me know what you think.  I am writing them not to preach or to hear myself think but to try to create dialogs, debates and discussions on the nature of our government and how we can build upon and improve it based on what we have seen and learned over the course of the 225 years of The American Experiment.