Our Political Delusion

The incoming of a new administration is always suggestive of the. peaceable transfer of power over our great empire from one person to another; but the entrance of a new party into power, as indicated by, the election of a Democratic President and the appearance of Democratic cabinet ministers at the head of our departments, brings into a strong light some characteristics of our politics which people either ignore or do not comprehend. In truth, Americans in general, so far as they display themselves in active political campaigns, do not seem to see that every four years the country is convulsed by an agony of bitter strife and vituperation, and that as an equivalent for this their ballots are cast for a President under a delusion which is almost absurd in its effect. We are a newspaper-reading people. Moreover, we discuss, as well as read about, the issues which concern our national welfare. There are few persons, for example, who do not have some definite opinion—whether those opinions are sound or not—about the present coinage of silver dollars, or about the relative merits of revenue and protective tariffs. Entirely apart from the grounds of their beliefs, however, men think that the ballot is a means of shaping these beliefs into political enactments. One man holds vigorously to protection, another to revenue reform: then these two men, in our quadrennial agony, cast their votes for a candidate for the presidency who, in his letter of acceptance, or by the platform of his party, or in his speeches, has declared himself doubtfully or frankly in favor of either protection or revenue reform; and these voters believe that they have conscientiously succeeded, so far as their votes go, in doing something to put into office a man who will carry their views into effect. They think that they have aided in settling the economic policy of the country. As a matter of fact, the votes have accomplished no such results. The notion that they have is a political delusion. But outside of the professional politicians and those intimately acquainted with the government at Washington; it maybe said that this delusion is entertained by the great mass of the voters, who are either ill-informed, or too busy to give much thought to politics. Among these persons, a man thinks that the election of a given candidate will operate to impress his individual views upon the accepted policy of the country he governs. But this is a mistake, even if the President sincerely represents the doctrines of his party as expressed in its platform.

To show that this is a mistake, a word or two as to the functions of. the President may not be amiss. The chief of these functions, in time of peace, are the veto, the power of appointing to office, and the control of our relations with foreign governments. For the exercise of any powers which come under these heads, the President of course is, and ought to be, held directly responsible; so that whenever a voter goes to the polls, in a presidential election, he can cast his vote in such a way as to make his judgment felt on the policy of the Executive. If, for example, he has made unfit appointments on grounds of personal favoritism, or has led us into dangerous complications abroad without cause, every dissatisfied citizen can hold the President to a strict responsibility, and help to vote him out of office. This is a direct cure for the disease. The control of the executive over appointments to office, moreover, is exactly the reason why the question of civil service reform was so prominent an issue in the last presidential campaign. It was a matter which affected the manner of making appointments, not by Senators, not by Representatives, but by no other one person than the President himself. This was an issue, then, in which it was possible to establish a direct connection between the vote and the enforcement of the voter’s opinions in practice. Or, in the language of politics, here was direct responsibility of the President to the voter for the use of his powers. This responsibility is manifest by the fact that, if his action is not approved, he can be displaced by the voters who gave him office.

Recommended Reading

If this fact is clearly grasped, we may then sees how our delusion affects us. The delusion exists in supposing that a change of Presidents is a change of policies. The Executive is our chief official, of course, and the most imposing figure in the government; but his prominence has taken hold on our imaginations to the extent of producing effects not wholly unnatural or uncommon in matters lying outside of our immediate experience; for the mass of men grasp at the seen, and let the unseen escape them. However imposing our chief magistrate appears at the head of a great nation, yet, so far as the adoption of definite measures of legislative policy is concerned, he is not the most powerful and influential person in it. There is one other more powerful and influential than the President. To make this evident, consider for a moment where the guidance of legislation lies.

It would seem almost unnecessary to call attention to the fundamental distinction between the executive and legislative branches of our government, were it not that this separation of functions is practically unrecognized by the community at large. Perhaps nothing will show this better than the feeling which pervaded a large wing of the Republican party in the last campaign. They were penetrated with a dread of seeing a Democrat in the presidential chair. In their opinion, this was “giving the country over to the Democrats.” Now that the smoke of the battle has blown away, we can consider such an opinion calmly. In the sense implied in the declaration there was little truth in it. If it meant the introduction of Democratic ideas (even supposing them to be different from Republican ideas) into the legislation of our country, it was evidence of a delusion; and it showed an inability to realize that, in this sense, the voters had given the Democratic party control of the legislation some years ago, when the country quietly and without any evidence of panic had given that party a majority in the Lower House of Congress. In other words, it was not understood that there is one particular personage who has a larger influence on the legislation of our country than the President of the United States. That personage is the Speaker of the House of Representatives. It remains for me to show the truth of this statement.

Of course the question naturally arises, Why have you selected this one official as possessing more power over legislation than that of the President himself? Is it not the duty of the Executive to send annual (or other) messages to Congress, proposing important changes in legislation? Yes, that is true; but every one knows that in practice Congress ignores these recommendations. President Arthur and Secretary McCulloch drew the attention not only of Congress, but of the whole country, to the need of legislation, in their messages at the beginning of last December (1884); but what single measure of importance was enacted during the whole winter session? The Secretaries of the Treasury have for years urged upon Congress the repeal of the Silver Act of 1878; yet the act is still in force, and a disgrace to the country. Again, an objector may justly ask, Has not the President a veto power upon all legislation? Yes, but this is only a negative, not a positive, influence, in 1878, when President Hayes vetoed the Silver Bill, explaining his objections to the measure by forcible arguments in a veto message, the bill was passed contemptuously over his head by both Houses. This veto power, however, is of no little force, and its importance should be fully admitted. General Grant, for example, saved the nation from an inflated currency by his veto in 1874, a stroke of good fortune for which we may well be thankful to him. Still, this only shows that the opinions of the President upon public measures for which legislation is demanded are on some occasions not useless. Although we realize all the influence exercised by the President, as thus suggested, yet we are met by the troublesome fact that, so far as the enactment of measures is concerned, the Speaker of the House is a more potent factor in bringing about results than the President of the nation.

How this is, I shall proceed to show. The Speaker of the House of Representatives himself appoints all the committees for that body. In the Senate, members of the committees are chosen by the Senate itself, acting, in fact, through the caucuses of each party. The presiding officer of the Senate, the Vice-President of the United States, is therefore a political nonentity. He has no influence in shaping legislation in the Senate. The Speaker of the House, on the contrary, is a great and potent force in shaping legislation. He has been given absolute power in forming the committees of the House, and these committees, or rather the chairmen of these committees, have practical control over all legislation upon subjects which are referred to them. The responsibility for legislation, consequently, rests upon the chairmen of the committees, and primarily upon the Speaker who appoints them. How this happens is to be seen from following the very intelligible account of the nature of committee government given by Mr. Woodrow Wilson in a volume entitled Congressional Government (1885). People often think that the election to Congress of a few men who represent them on public questions will produce a visible effect on legislation. But the Speaker and the committees will, in fact, make new members very bumble parts of a machine which is outside of their control. The election of a member of Congress because of his opinions on a particular question does not insure the presence in that body of a champion who can effectively push his ideas into legislation. The new member will accomplish little, if he is not on the committees to which are referred the questions which were the causes of his election. The actual position of the new and energetic Representative in Congress, and his relation to committees, is explained by Mr. Wilson, from whom I quote: —

“His bill is doubtless ready for presentation early in the session, and some day, taking advantage of a pause in the proceedings, when there seems to be no business before the House, he rises to read it and move its adoption. But he finds getting the floor an arduous and precarious undertaking. There are certain to be others who want it as well as he; and his indignation is stirred by the fact that the Speaker does not so much as turn towards him, though he must have heard his call, but recognizes some one else readily and as a matter of course. If he be obstreperous and persistent in his cries of ‘Mr. Speaker,’ he may get that great functionary’s attention for a moment, — only to be told, however, that he is out of order, and that his bill can be introduced at that stage only by unanimous consent: immediately there are mechanically uttered but emphatic exclamations of objection, and he is forced to sit down, confused and disgusted. … He learns that his only safe day is Monday. On that day the roll of the States is called, and members may introduce bills as their States are reached in the call. … If he supposes, as he naturally will, that after his bill has been sent up to be read by the clerk he may say a few words in its behalf, and in that belief sets out upon his long-considered remarks, he will be knocked down by the rules as surely as he was on the first occasion when he gained the floor for a brief moment. The rap of Mr. Speaker’s gavel is sharp, immediate, and peremptory. He is curtly informed that no debate is in order; the bill can only be referred to the appropriate committee.”

The House acts through its committees. “The work”—I quote again from Mr. Wilson—“is parceled out, most of it to the forty-seven standing committees which constitute the regular organization of the House, some of it to select committees appointed for special and temporary purposes. Each of the almost numberless bills that come pouring in on Mondays is ‘read a first and second time,’ — simply perfunctorily read, that is, by its title, by the clerk, and passed by silent assent through its first formal courses, for the purpose: of bringing it to the proper stage for commitment, — and referred without debate to the appropriate standing committee. Practically, no bill escapes commitment—save, of course, bills introduced by committees, and a few which may now. and then be crowded through under a suspension of the rules, granted by a, two-thirds vote, — though the exact disposition to be made of a bill is not always determined easily and as a matter of course. Besides the great Committee of Ways and Means and the equally great Committee on Appropriations, there are standing committees on Banking and Currency, on Claims, on Commerce, on the Public Lands, on Post Offices and Post Roads, on the Judiciary, on Public Expenditures, on Manufactures, on Agriculture, on Military Affairs, on Naval Affairs, on Mines and Mining, on Education and Labor, on Patents, and on a score of other branches of legislative concern. …

“The fate of bills committed is generally not uncertain. As a rule, a bill committed is a bill doomed. When it goes from the clerk’s desk to a committee-room it crosses a parliamentary bridge of sighs to dim dungeons of silence, whence it will never return. The means and time of its death are unknown, but its friends never see it again. Of course no Standing Committee is privileged to take upon itself the full powers of the House it represents, and formally and decisively reject a bill referred to it; its disapproval, if it disapproves, must be reported to the House in the form of a recommendation that the bill ‘do not pass.’ But it is easy, and therefore common, to let the session pass without making any report at all upon bills deemed objectionable or unimportant, and to substitute for reports upon them a few bills of the committee’s own drafting; so that thousands. of bills expire with the expiration of each Congress, not having been rejected, but having been simply neglected. There was not time to report upon them.

“Of course, it goes without saying that the practical effect of this committee organization of the House is to consign to each of the standing committees the entire direction of legislation upon those subjects which properly come to its consideration. As to those subjects it is entitled to the initiative, and all legislative action with regard to them is under its overruling guidance. … The House never accepts the proposals of the Committee of Ways and Means, or of the Committee on Appropriations, without due deliberation; but it allows almost all of its other Standing Committees virtually to legislate for it. ...

“One very noteworthy result of this system is to shift the theatre of debate upon legislation from the floor of Congress to the privacy of the committee-rooms. … The little public debate (one hour in all) that arises under the stringent and urgent rules of the House is formal rather than effective, and it is the discussions which take place in the committees that give form to legislation. The proceedings of the committees are private and their: discussions unpublished. … Indeed, it is not usual for the committees to open their sittings often to those who desire to be heard with regard to pending questions and no one can demand a hearing as a right. On the contrary, they are privileged and accustomed to hold their sessions in absolute secrecy. … The speeches made before the committees at their open sessions are therefore scarcely of such a kind as would. be instructive [!] to the public, and on that account. worth publishing. They are, as a rule; the pleas of special pleaders, the arguments of advocates. … They represent a joust between antagonistic interests, not a contest of principles.”

Even this statement may not convey a wholly adequate notion of the facts. It is true that legislation can be impeded, by committees, but it is quite probable that the committees themselves are not as powerful as they are here described. If we except the greater committees, the chairmen are more powerful than their committees., Contrary to common opinion, indeed; these bodies do not often meet, and a fairly strong chairman entirely controls his committee.

Again, yet another point is to be kept in mind, when we try—as is our object—to fix the responsibility for legislation. Paradoxical as it may seem to all who know of our partisan campaigns and the prevalence of partisan motives in political movements, in truth we do not have enough, of, party government in Congress. Although the party in power retains the chairmanships, and as a rule, puts a majority of their own side on the committees, still the committees are composed of men of both political parties. So far as legislative responsibility is concerned, this is an evil. It is a device by which the party in power escapes the entire responsibility for the action of its committees and, for, the furtherance or defeat of legislation. Were party lines more strictly drawn in Congress, and the committees composed solely of members of the party in power at any given time, the other party would be arrayed in discussion, as a keen and active opposition, who could put the responsibility where it belongs.

To this point we have been carried by our account of the methods by which legislation is actually accomplished in, our Congress, and we have seen where the chief responsibility for good or for bad enactment lies. But in the early part of the paper I have outlined the relations of the Executive to those who elected him. It was seen that if voters disapprove, for example, of the President’s use of the veto, of his appointing power, or of his foreign policy, they have a direct means of calling him to account. Now if the country believes that legislation has been vicious in its effects, does it do any good to hit at the President? If the voters rise to an interest in the coinage of silver, or in revenue reform, how shall they obtain a direct accounting from the legislative stewards? They have, in short, no such means. Certainly they cannot achieve this end by removing a President, when the real agents are the Speaker and his chairmen. Of course, if silver legislation, for instance, gets through a committee and comes before the House, the vote of each member of the House (who votes) is recorded, and if the district: represented by him disapproves of his course it can repudiate him. There are no means, however, of calling a committee to account in this way. A conspicuous example of this absence of responsibility came up during the last session of Congress. The chairman of one of the great committees so managed the appropriation bills as effectively to cut off all other legislation. His conduct was a matter of national import, but the only means of reaching him was to ask his congressional district to hold him responsible for his action as a chairman, — a vary impracticable suggestion. For he was not appointed chairman by the votes of his constituents who elected him to Congress. In short, we must logically fall back on the Speaker who appointed him.

So, as I have shown, no other one man in the Union has so great an influence on actual legislation as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. No other person can so impress his personal views on legislation as can he. He can appoint to the committees which have special charge of legislation on important subjects a majority of men who agree with his views, and these committees can practically exercise entire control of the matter. This is also exemplified by the history of the last session. The Speaker had appointed to the Coinage Committee a majority of members hostile to the suspension of silver coinage; and so, in spite of the impending business crisis, nothing affecting that subject was reported. Yet the subject was, indeed, brought up at the close of the session, but only by a parliamentary device founded on the fact that the purchase of silver bullion by the Treasury was a question of appropriations, and a provision could therefore be tacked on to the bills of another committee than that of coinage. In fact, the Speaker who makes up the committees is the only single person of any real importance in the legislative branch of our government.

In spite of this, people continue to think that the President can guide legislation. This notion, as I must have made clear, is a popular delusion, fostered by chance and by scheming managers, to blind the voter to the real truth of his actions at the ballot-box. It is high time, now, that simple and fundamental principles should be understood. The conduct of presidential campaigns and the speeches of “orators” are saturated with this delusion that the personal opinions of the candidates for our chief magistracy are of vital importance to the success of government and to the action of Congress. An illustration of this confusion of thought is to be found in high places. The letter of acceptance of one of the candidates in the last campaign was devoted, after a short reference to his position on civil service reform (which was of primary importance, because, as has been seen, this concerns the President’s methods of making appointments, over which he has full control), to a lengthy statement of his views on the wisdom of protection, of our shipping laws, and of other questions for legislation. And yet, after a President gets into office, who concerns himself with the views of the Executive on such subjects, unless he is in a position to veto a bill? If the President were able to appoint committees from the elected members of Congress, where legislation goes on, then his views on public measures would be of paramount importance. As it is, the views of the Speaker, who does make the committees, are of infinitely greater importance in such matters than those of the President, who executes the laws. The country, however, by a singular oversight, scarcely thinks of troubling itself with the Speaker’s preconceptions as to legislation. The voters are stirred up to an interest in politics by the managers, and then, by the force of delusions, they assign to one man the influence and power which belongs to another. With burning zeal we discuss the declarations of the presidential candidate in regard to legislation, on the ground, apparently, that he has nothing to do with carrying these opinions into enactments, — the principle of lucus a non lucendo! It is as if we made a great show of inviting a crowd of friends to hunt the lion, while the managers all the time knew there was no lion to hunt; but it is curious, indeed, to find the hunters persist in the belief that there must be a lion, even after the failure of the hunt has clearly demonstrated that there is none to be found. Those who share in the sport have a glorious inability to see that they have been humbugged.

Under the delusion which confounds the position of the President and the Speaker, many people went so far, in the last campaign, as to minutely discuss the position of one candidate on the question of prohibition, and even nominated another on this issue. It all had no point. Suppose a temperance candidate were elected President, what could he do? He might settle the question whether or not there should be wine on the White house table, but very little more than that. A temperance President could not create temperance legislation. The only way to accomplish anything of that kind would be by electing temperance congressmen. It is true that a candidate for the presidency is a visible centre of the battle, and the support; of him may assist in sweeping congressmen of the same party into office; but only the latter thing is of importance as concerns legislation.

Thus far the distinction between the powers of the President and the Speaker have been only roughly sketched, and it will be impossible here to shade in the outline with all the lines and modeling necessary to represent fully the actual situation. The fact probably is that the President, apart from his veto power, does have an influence upon legislation. We are now expecting President Cleveland to influence legislation on the coinage of silver dollars at the next session of Congress. Can he do it? In my opinion, he can, so long as he has patronage uncontrolled by the regulations of the civil service law. At present, scarcely any local leader of his own party wishes to quarrel with the President’s policy while he may hope to get a postmaster, or an official, appointed in his district on his own recommendation. But if all these offices were removed from politics, — as is now the case for only ten thousand out of one hundred thousand offices, — what would congressmen care for the personal opinions of the Executive? Practically, nothing. The President would have no more influence, perhaps, than any other vigorous man with great strength of character, in the position of a party leader. While his social influence would not count for much, the power of a popular President over the councils of his party leaders, and through them over the managers in Congress, might be considerable, but would surely be very indefinite and uncertain. Perhaps President Cleveland may be able to induce members of Congress to vote for the suspension of silver coinage next winter by an obvious use of his appointments; but it must be remembered, however, that, after his appointments are all made, he will be a very much less influential man with members of Congress than he is now. We all know how notorious is the disregard of the recommendations of the President in his messages to Congress. No one thinks seriously of any legislation following from the presentation by the Executive of important measures in these messages. The most that is done in reality is to call the public attention to grave questions, and perhaps, in an indirect way, through outside influence or the demands of the press, to bring a pressure to bear upon Congress.

Yet the way out of the difficulty I have shown is not quite obvious. It is probably accepted by all who know the workings of Congress that there is no escape from committee government. Contrasts are drawn between the Lower House in Congress and the English House of Commons, to the disadvantage of the former. The House of Commons permits more debate, but it has less power to dispatch business than our Lower House. In truth, the English body, as demands on its time increase, more likely to move in the direction of the time-saving committee system rather than away from it. Congressional business multiplies, and time is unavoidably wanting for any plan which involves the consideration of details by the whole House. We must make up our minds, therefore, to accept the committee system. But can we not secure an arrangement by which the country will have something more tangible than the divided responsibility now existing, diffused as it is among forty-seven chairmen of as many committees?

Accepting the committee system, as it is, what reform would best secure responsibility for legislation? We shall pass by the well-known suggestion that the Cabinet should have seats in Congress, and take up some other ideas. Why not elect a Speaker of the House by popular vote, in the same way that we choose the Vice-President, who presides over the Senate? There are obvious objections to such a course: the House itself could take away the power of appointing committees from its presiding officer (as in the case of the Senate), and the Speaker would then have no influence on legislation. The difficulty would still remain of holding the chairmen of the committees accountable. Practical sagacity, however, might suggest the wisdom of utilizing existing political conditions. As we have seen, there now exists a popular delusion that the settlement of important issues is directly connected with the election of the President. Then, why not make it obligatory for the President and Cabinet to appoint from elected members the congressional committees? If that plan were adopted, the idea now fixed in the political habits of the people, that our quadrennial contests settle questions of legislation, would be actually realized. It would place the responsibility for legislation where it does not now belong, but where the voters think it belongs. It would be like putting a live enemy in front of a marksman’s rifle, in place of a wooden target; the bullet would then produce important effects, instead of merely furnishing amusement. At present, we practice firing at a dummy, under the delusion that it is a living being; yet no surprise is exhibited that the dummy does not come down when it receives what we believe to be a fatal shot.

Some such adjustment of means to an end is imperatively demanded. As matters now stand, the election of a President, in truth, determines little more than whether one or the other of the principal candidates shall control the appointments to office. Indeed, the excessive bitterness and virulence of a presidential campaign is due to this fact, — to the intensely personal character of the real issue. But politicians, while electing a President, raise a great clamor about the South, about free trade, or about any of the possible issues that can affect the country, and a flood of rhetoric on these questions swamps the press and all political speaking, to the exclusion of the real question involved in the election. These discussions on matters of moment—discussions which might be of use if we were choosing congressmen to legislate upon them—only befog the popular mind, and settle nothing, while they conceal from the public the actual truth that, under the smoke of the bitter fight on issues, the politicians are really aiming at getting possession of the appointing power by selecting their candidate for the presidency. Without doubt, if the appointments should be used by a scheming President, opposed to the merit system, they would be instruments of very considerable efficiency in influencing Congress; but it is difficult to understand how an Executive who appoints to office solely on grounds of merit, without exacting a consideration from the appointee, could much affect legislation in Congress. The real cause of intense feeling in presidential elections is the hope of securing the offices; and with a proper extension of civil service reform this ought to disappear.

It is a familiar fact to every one that the platforms of our nominating conventions are absolutely useless, so far as an effect on party action is concerned, after the election has passed by. Why is it? Because they form a part of our political delusion. These platforms are nominally made for Presidents to stand upon; but every idea, every crotchet, which may captivate a voter, is included in them. The President is expected to express his adherence to the platform in a letter of acceptance. But such forms are all absurdly illogical. It is of precious little importance what the President thinks of questions which must go to Congress, for enactment into law. After he is elected, does the President lie awake nights, with the platform of his party in his hands, studying how he may please the voters by making decrees or proclamations about the declarations in the party resolutions? Or is he not rather barring his doors, in a futile attempt to keep the herd of trampling office-seekers out of his very dining-room, or his bed-chamber? It we are worked up into a white heat every four years, because A has assented to one set of views, and B to another almost exactly like them, only to find out that it means nothing at all as regards any final results, we naturally become disgusted with politics, and agree that it is of no use to discuss any political questions, because we can have no influence in settling them.

To ask for bread, in this way, and get only a stone is not satisfying to a healthy political life. Is it not possible to make things a little clearer to every voter, that a ballot for a President touches questions such as methods of appointments, but that, if he wishes to have an influence on legislation, he can have it in no other way than by his choice of members of Congress? Let the election of congressmen be signalized by proper platforms discussing national questions; for they are the men who chiefly settle them, — not the President. The zeal about public questions should, at present, be turned directly upon Congress. The platforms of national conventions are only decoys. They mean nothing more than the orders to a sham fight, when the real battle is going on elsewhere. It is not conceivable that the Americans are so dull a people as long to remain under this political delusion.