The Great Debate

To Debate or not to debate… is that even a question?

“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

~ Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1, October 1787 (emphasis added by me)


Have we established a good government?  How can we really claim to be a democracy when people object to even holding a debate, let alone a vote?  The idea of “allowing” or “not allowing” discussion or a vote on a particular bill or a particular issue is the exact opposite of anything the American system is supposed to represent.  In fact, the whole point is that we get to vote for all these Senators and Congressmen, and they in turn get to cast votes, representing us.  The ability to vote, be it ours or our elected representative’s, is literally the basis of the entire system.  How can we possibly get anything done when we won’t even allow legislation to come up for a vote?  The idea that we somehow legislate better by allowing anybody to prevent debating and voting on issues is counter to the point of our system.  Bills are frequently quashed via the committee system before even making it to the rest of Congress for debate or vote.  And even then, the list of legislative tricks to keep issues from ever being truly discussed is frequently utilized.

How did we get to this point?  Its actually partly the Founders’ fault.  They left no specific instructions for how Congress was supposed to conduct the business of legislating.  The first Congresses followed the same kind of Committee system that the colonies had used during the creation of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and to run the country during the Revolutionary War.  Their systems came from even older systems used by the individual colonies and the Parliament back in Great Britain.  In fact, references to committees in British legislature can be found as early as 1340, and are consistent from the 1500s onward.  The essentials of this type of legislative system haven’t fundamentally changed in more than half a millennium.  And to this day, both the House and the Senate follow these precedents while continuing to be able to create their own rules on how they want to conduct the business of legislating.  This would probably be fine if the last few Congresses actually legislated effectively.  But it’s pretty obvious that the system has become broken.  And it’s distinctly ironic that a nation which created its own unique form of representational democracy still hasn’t crafted a new, better way to legislate, or at least substantively updated the centuries-old system currently in place.

In fact, the committee system caters to the kind of partisan bickering and ridiculous political dogmatism currently choking the life out of our legislature, and our country as a whole.  Manipulating the committee system in Congress is part and parcel of the game political parties play with our system in order to advance their own agendas, leaving little room for creativity or compromise on the issues we face as a nation.  Political parties thrive on the type of legislative system created by the committees because it allows them to carry their own ideologies into every single issue and every single debate.  Independent-minded representatives can be kept easily in check under a system that basically requires party support to accomplish anything.  And political parties can easily create entrenched positions and endlessly bicker over any and every issue since they can just blame the system for not allowing them any other options.  We’re a nation that was created because the old system was broken.  So do we continue to allow our legislature to be broken or do we demand something better?

Res Publica

Documentation without Representation:

Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 1, originally published 27 Oct 1787

Electronic Text Courtesy of Yale Law School’s Avalon Project

For more information about the history of the committee system and the origins of the rules of American legislative bodies:

Jameson, J. Franklin, “The Origin of the Standing-Committee System in American Legislative Bodies”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Jun., 1894), pp. 246-267

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