Saturday, April 2, 2016

Constitution Series Part 2: Article I, Sections 1 and 2

By far the longest section of the Constitution is Article I, which details the creation and powers of the nation's legislative branch. Congress was supposed to be the most powerful branch of the government since it's the most democratic and the least likely to generate a despot. As such, it was the first thing addressed in our Constitution, and it got the most ink.

Even so, it's by no means a novel. The description had to be fairly straightforward so that the states would actually read and comprehend it, so it's as lean as it can be while still being pretty dense. There are 10 sections total in Article I, so let's see how many we can get through today.


Section 1
All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.
Very straightforward.  Congress gets the country's legislative powers, and there will be two bodies of this Congress: the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Like basically every line in this document, though, this isn't a flippant pronouncement. A bicameral legislature was the product of a compromise during the Constitutional Convention. The Articles of Confederation, after all, had only one legislative house, and each state only got one vote. This new Congress would be something entirely different, as we'll soon see.

Side note: this is the shortest section in the entire Constitution.

Section 2

This section begins to explain what exactly the House of Representatives is, how its numbers are determined, and who is allowed to join it. It's also fairly long, so I'm going to break it up into segments:
The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.
The House of Representatives was an interesting creation. Here they establish that members of the House serve two-year terms, which is a big deal. Basically, the House struck a delicate balance between the problems inherent in a governing body that may change drastically every two years due to the whims of the people, and the inherent benefits of having a body that more accurately represents the needs and wants of the people.

Basically, the House was supposed to represent the populace more closely than any other part of the government. Which is, of course, why it's the first body detailed in the Constitution. Don't like the direction the country is headed? The most expedient solution is to elect a new Representative.

Also, the fact that these Members were to be elected by the People is significant. Legislators under the Articles of Confederation were chosen by state legislatures, not the general populace.

So, who's eligible to be a Representative?
No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.
This was a strangely worded paragraph, since it throws in a negative in there unnecessarily. It would be more clear if it simply said, "Representatives must be at least twenty five years of age, must have been a Citizen of the United States for at least seven years, and must inhabit the state they represent at the time they're elected."

Can you imagine a 25-year-old Congressman today? Also, how many Congressmen are immigrants nowadays? The de facto requirements to become a Congressman today are much more strict than those laid out in the Constitution.
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Here we see the famous Three-Fifths compromise in action. It's a complicated agreement. Though people mock the idea as racist, to think of a slave as literally less than a human being (3/5 of one, to be exact), the reality is that the South would have preferred their slaves count as full people in this case. The number of Representatives for each state would be determined by the number of people inhabiting the state, so if the South got to count all of their slaves they would have a much higher population and, therefore, more Representatives and a greater voice in the government. Naturally, these southern representatives would be fighting for Southern interests (read: slavery), so the Three-Fifths Compromise was actually kind of a win for abolitionists.

Interestingly, this count includes all free persons, including immigrants, non-citizens, and indentures servants. Also, apparently Indians counted too, if they were taxed and, therefore, acting as citizens. Also, notice that they don't actually mention slaves, they just eliminate everyone who isn't a slave, then say "all other Persons" to refer to those who remain.
The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.
Here, they have basically established the national census. Its primary purpose was to determine taxes and the number of Representatives granted to each state. Interestingly, they couldn't perform this census before the first meeting of Congress, so they had to basically guestimate how many Representatives each state should get in the meantime:
The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.
So, the first Congress had a grand total of 65 Representatives, each one representing 30,000 people, give or take. For reference, now we have 435 voting members of the House of Representatives, each one representing over 700,000 people.This is because Congress capped the number of Representatives at 435 back in 1911. Before then, we would actually add more Representatives every ten years according to census data.

I also find this section interesting because you can see how they transcribed the name of each state. New York is hyphenated, but New Jersey is not. Rhode Island is "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." You can also get a sense for how populated each part of the country was: New York only got six Representatives, compared to Virginia's ten and Massachusetts's eight. New York was tied with Maryland. New York City was a big deal even then, but apparently not enough to give it the out-sized representation it does today.
When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.
The "Executive Authority" mentioned here refers to the governor of a state. Basically, this clause requires state governors to hold a special election if and when a Congressman vacates his seat. The Supreme Court has made it clear that these elections are mandatory, and a governor can not choose to not hold them. However, the governor has some control over when these elections are held.
The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
 Two main powers here:

1) They choose their own leaders, meaning the Speaker of the House can not be appointed by, say, the President or by members of the Senate. The House is self-governing.

2) The House has the power to Impeach. Not the Supreme Court, not the Senate, only the House has this authority. This is one of those powers that were important to assign to the body that best represents the people of the United States. Note, though, that impeachment in this sense is the same as being sued; someone can sue you and still not win the case. The actual impeachment trial is handled by the Senate.

One final note: each Representative gets to cast their own vote. They don't need to come to a consensus and vote as one; they cast their votes independently from one another. This idea was a matter of debate during the Constitutional Convention, and it's one of those instances in which there's meaning in what was not stated. It's implied that Representatives can vote independently because the Constitution doesn't say they can't. In the Articles of Confederation, however, the state delegates had to come to a consensus and vote as one. This is particularly relevant to the Senate, in which senators from the same state were expected to be unified. This idea was eventually scrapped.

Continue to Part 3: Article I, Section 3

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