Monday, April 4, 2016

Constitution Series Part 3: Article I, Section 3

With the House of Representatives established, we're moving on to the Senate. The makeup of the Senate and the House were the result of a compromise between the populous states and the smaller states. Smaller states wanted each state to have equal representation in Congress, while larger states supported proportionate representation. In the end, we got both: proportionate representation in the House and equal representation in the Senate.

The Senate was designed to be the "higher" house, populated by the country's "elites." Social classes were very much still a thing at the time (and you might say it still is), and while it was all well and good to populate the House of Representatives with riffraff, the Senate was supposed to be populated with only the well-to-do, much like the British House of Lords.


Section 3

Again, I'll break this section up since it's somewhat long.
The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.
Like I said, senators were supposed to be the elite, so they couldn't be elected by the masses. Instead, they were to be appointed by the state legislatures, like the delegates laid out in the Articles of Confederation.

This has since changed, but senators were chosen by state legislatures for over a century. The procedure didn't change until 1913(!), with the passing of the 17th Amendment. But, hey, we'll get to the amendments when we get to them.

Senators were supposed to be the rocks upon which the stormy sea of the House would crash. While the House of Representatives might change their makeup entirely every two years, senators would keep their seats thrice as long. This would provide some stability to our country's leadership and prevent radical takeover of our government.

Interestingly, according to Alexander Hamilton's plan senators would be chosen for life, much like a Supreme Court Justice. However, this idea was determined to be "too British."
Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one third may be chosen every second Year; and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies.
Being a "first class" senator, though it sounds pretty cool, must have sucked since you effectively only got a two-year term. However, this class system (which only applied to the very first senators) was vital in establishing the rotating nature of senate seats.

In short, this section adds to the stability the Senate was supposed to provide our government. Basically, at any given time no more than about one third of the senate seats can be up for grabs. This was designed to prevent rapid takeover of our government by radical ideas. A radical shift in priorities would need to be sustained for at least two election cycles to gain a majority of the senate, assuming such a movement could take over nearly all of the senate seats in each election.

This is part of what makes our government so frustrating to deal with from a progressive standpoint, but it's actually comforting to have such a stabilizing body in our legislature. Unchecked radicalism can be dangerous, and this system keeps it in check admirably.

For instance, remember when the Tea Party picked up steam a few years ago? They managed to pick up several seats in the House and Senate, but they've since lost a lot of steam. The rolling nature of the Senate ensures that temporary movements like theirs can't gain enough power in a short span of time to radically alter the government.

Also noted in this paragraph: if a Senate seat is vacated before the senator's term is up, the governor of that state can appoint a new senator in their place. This is still the case, such as when President Barack Obama won the presidential election in 2008 and resigned as a senator. His replacement, Roland Burris, was appointed by Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich (with some controversy).
No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.
Like the list of requirements to be a member of the House, this paragraph is phrased awkwardly. A clearer statement would be, "a Senator must be at least thirty years of age, a citizen of the United States for at least nine years, and must, at the time of election, inhabit the state they are to represent."

Note that senators are to be older than members of the House, having achieved at least the ripe old age of 30. (Hey! I qualify!) Again, though, it's hard to imagine a 30-year-old senator. It's happened, though. Especially early on, when senators were appointed by state legislatures and birth records were sketchy at best, apparently several senators were appointed at less than Constitutional age. Specifically, Henry Clay, Armistead Thomson Mason, and John Eaton.

It's also worth noting that you must be 30 years old to take the office, but you can be elected at a younger age so long as you're 30 by the time you take the oath of office. For instance, current Vice President Joe Biden was elected to the Senate on November 7, 1972 at the age of 29. He then turned 30 on November 20 and was sworn into office on January 5, 1973. And speaking of the Vice President:
The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.
The Senate has an even number of members, meaning they can have a tied vote. The Vice President's only apparent job is to exist and be on call in case the President dies. This seemed like an obvious "two birds with one stone" deal: have the Vice President oversee the Senate, but with no real power except as that of a tie-breaker.
The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.
I'm actually not sure how often the Vice President actually presides over the Senate in his day-to-day duties. Still, this section is pretty straightforward, though I'll repeat the note I had from a similar passage from Section 2, which is to point out that this means Senate officers are not chosen by any other body, including the President. They're self-governed, especially when the Vice President is off golfing, or whatever else Vice Presidents do with their time.
The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.
Most people only really acknowledge impeachment when it's directed toward the President, but in fact anybody in public office can be impeached. When a public officer is suspected of a crime, the House of Representatives decides if that person should be impeached, and the Senate holds the trial to determine guilt or innocence.

The "oath or affirmation" note basically means that all parties involved must "swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," basically.

The Vice President presides over all impeachment trials except for that of a President, in which case the Chief Justice is called in. Presumably, if the President is on trial the Vice President can not be expected to be impartial. Not because the Vice President would be biased in favor of the President, of course, but because he'd be biased against him. After all, if the President is successfully impeached, the Vice President takes his place. And they were not expected to have much loyalty to one another, since (as we'll see) originally Vice Presidents were simply whoever came in second place during the presidential election, meaning that the President and Vice President were expected to be political rivals. But, hey, that's a conversation for Article II Section 1 and the Twelfth Amendment.

Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority. The "two-thirds vote" measure is generally only invoked when Congress needs to be absolutely certain of what they're choosing to do, such as when removing someone from office. There are other instances of this, which we'll see in later Sections.
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.
The final note in this section defines the power of Impeachment: basically, it's solely used to remove a person from office. Criminal charges would need to be brought up later in a court of law without the benefits of office immunity to protect the impeached party.

So far, no President has been removed from office by the Senate, though two have been successfully impeached by the House of Representatives: Andrew Johnson (for changing the Secretary of War without the Senate's permission) and Bill Clinton (for perjury and obstruction of justice). Both were acquitted by the Senate. Richard Nixon might have gotten successfully impeached after the Watergate scandal, but he resigned before impeachment proceeding could commence.

Continue to Part 4: Article I, Sections 4 and 5


  1. One thing is standing out to me here, and it's not the interesting stability hedge against short-term political upheaval (although, good commentary on that). No, instead it's: when is the last time anyone started to seriously debate these age limits?

    I'd just like to know what the rationale was. Presumably they're trying to ensure that candidates have some minimum amount of experience or time to develop necessary skills. But age only kind of correlates with those kinds of skills - the mere fact of someone being 30 does not necessarily mean they have acquired relevant skills or experience. Meanwhile it's at least conceivable that someone who is much younger could be eminently qualified.

    We've had to draw some legal distinction between children and adults for practical considerations. 18 years old is a pretty arbitrary line, but it's the line at which we've decided that people can be held accountable for their actions.

    So why not allow legal adults to qualify for Senate and House seats, or even the presidency? Surely if lack of experience or maturity counts for something, that will be borne out in the election.


    1. The age limit for congressmen and presidents was definitely arbitrary. They basically decided, "eh, 25 sounds old enough for the House. And we want senators to be a bit older, so.... 30? And presidents should be older still, so... 35? Yep, good enough."

      These limitations could be overcome if challenged, but I don't think it's going to happen. Nowadays especially, the mean age for congressmen and presidents has trended upward steadily, and the perception has become that politics is for old people. So, most young people don't even consider running for office to be a possibility.

      And even if they did decide to challenge that clause, the only thing that could change it would be an amendment to the Constitution. Amendments require ratification by 2/3 of all states, not to mention needing to actually be proposed by Congress who, as people who already qualify for their office, are not likely to care enough to bother proposing an amendment like that.

      So, an 18-year-old wanting to run for a House seat would have to spend time:
      1) Lobbying Congress to propose an amendment
      2) Lobby states to ratify that amendment
      3) Run for office and win
      Each step could take years, and by that time they'll likely be old enough to run without an amendment.

      So, given lack of interest and the huge amount of effort needed to change the Constitution, I don't foresee the age requirements changing any time soon.

    2. Yeah, I don't think it's really that likely to change either, but that's secondary to the question of whether it should. :)

    3. I disagree. At least within our current legal system, the question of the likelihood of it changing comes before the question of whether or not it should. The second question won't be seriously reviewed unless it's challenged, and that challenge is not forthcoming.

      I think it would be an interesting debate if it were ever challenged, though, especially since I agree that the qualification of age is irrelevant compared to the intense scrutiny candidates receive during the campaigning process.