How does representative government work?

Etched in stone in the rotunda of the Capitol
are the words “Here, sir, the people govern.” Those words were spoken by Alexander Hamilton
when he asked what Congress represented. To the framers of the Constitution, the Congress
was the first branch of government, the place where the people’s representatives met to
decide the people’s business. Yet when the Constitution was unveiled, many
leading Americans were outraged. One of them was Richard Henry Lee of Virginia,
who had been president of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. Richard Henry Lee said, “This Constitution
has very little democracy in it.” What he was objecting to was the fact that
the people were not allowed to vote for the president or for members of the Senate. Only the House of Representatives would be
chosen by a vote of the people. When Henry Clay of Kentucky, one of the great
legislators of the 19th century, left the Senate to run for the House, he said, “I prefer
to serve in the people’s chamber.” Some critics today wonder whether that label
still applies to the House. They point to House elections, which have
become increasingly expensive. It was not that long ago that these were relatively
modest affairs, funded largely by donations from people living in the district. Today, it’s easily the case that a House election
can cost $1 million or more, with much of that money coming from wealthy individuals
and groups from outside the district. Critics also point to redistricting, the tendency
of state legislatures to pack House districts with voters from a particular party, thereby
guaranteeing the election of that party’s candidate in the fall. So who’s doing the electing? Is it the voters? Or is it the state legislatures and the wealthy
donors? Those kinds of issues about self-government
have been part of the American debate since the writing of the Constitution.

Stephen Childs

One Comment

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