The National House of Representatives: Its Growing Inefficiency as a Legislative Body

“The lower house must so reform its procedure as permanently to vest in the majority of the dominant party, whichever it may be, the power to act.”

At the close of the Middle Ages, every effort which had been made in the direction of representative government upon the continent of Europe had come to an end. From that time down to the French Revolution, the English parliamentary system survived as the solitary representative of what is generally known as popular government. Since the overturning in 1789 nearly all the states of continental Europe have organized national assemblies after the model of the English Parliament, in a spirit of conscious imitation. As Sir Henry Maine has stated it, “The British political model was followed by France, by Spain and Portugal, and by Holland and Belgium combined in the kingdom of the Netherlands; and, after a long interval, by Germany, Italy, and Austria.” But the typical English national assembly, embodying what is generally known as the bicameral or two-chamber system, was not copied into the continental European constitutions until it had first been reproduced and popularized by the founders of the federal republic of the United States. When the colonial commonwealths in America severed the tie of political dependence which bound them to the mother country, and rose to the full stature of sovereign States, they, with a single exception, organized their several legislatures after the ancient model as it existed in the insular system. The framers of the Federal Constitution of 1787, forsaking the original idea of a federal assembly consisting of a single chamber, adopted the English system of two chambers in the form in which that system had, reappeared in the several States. The adaptation of this dual system to the complicated interests of a federal republic gave rise to difficulties in the Federal Convention which at one time seemed to be insurmountable. All who are familiar with the history of the convention know that, upon a resolution offered by Virginia, the fact was settled, as a starting-point, that, however the respective branches of the new legislature might be organized, it should consist of two houses instead of one. As to the composition of the houses themselves, the question which first arose was whether or no the lower house should be organized upon a popular basis, after the model of the English House of Commons. After a debate, in which such men as Gerry, Sherman, Martin, and the Pinckneys expressed grave distrust of the wisdom of the people, the convention was induced by Madison, Hamilton, Wilson, and others to decide that the members of the lower house should be chosen directly by popular election. When this difficulty was removed, the convention was free to grapple with the supreme question before it, — the question whether or no the States in their corporate capacity were to be represented in the new assembly. If the “Virginia plan,” which recognized population as the only basis of representation, was to prevail, the smaller States—which, under the Articles of Confederation, were entitled to an equal vote—would be placed at the mercy of their more populous associates. At this stage of the proceedings, as a counter blast to the Virginia scheme, the smaller States, under the lead of William Patterson, brought before the convention the “New Jersey plan,” which proposed nothing more than a reformation of the Articles of Confederation. When angry and protracted debate between the opposing parties had brought the convention to the verge of dissolution, Sherman and Ellsworth suggested the famous “Connecticut Compromise,” which proposed that the national principle contended for by the greater States should prevail in the organization of the lower house, and that the federal principle claimed by the smaller States should prevail in the organization of the upper house, or Senate, in whose constitution the elective principle was to take the place of hereditary right. Thus modified by republican and federal ideas, the English bicameral system, in the form in which it had reappeared in the several States, passed into the Constitution of the United States.

The facts which have so far been epitomized as to the adaptation of the English bicameral system to the complicated wants of our federal republic are generally understood. What is not generally understood is this: At the time the adaptation was made, the relations which existed between the English Executive and the Parliament were radically different from what they have since become. At that moment cabinet government in England did not exist. As Mr. Bryce has recently observed, “In 1787, when the constitutional convention met at Philadelphia, the cabinet system of government was in England still immature. It was so immature that its true nature had not been perceived.” During the reigns of the first two Georges the foundations of the modern ministerial system were firmly laid, but in the presence of the imperious will of George III. its growth was checked; for a time it passed into eclipse. In the midst of this eclipse the Federal Convention met. The fathers had, therefore, no opportunity to view the working of the English Constitution in its later form; they had no opportunity to witness that perfect accord and cohesion which now exist in England between the cabinet, who represent the dominant party, and the majority of that party in the House of Commons. As the English model was the acknowledged standard for imitation, it was naturally copied in the form in which it then presented itself to the gaze of the convention. In the teeth of the prevailing prejudice against monarchy, it was no easy task to devise an acceptable scheme through which the federal President should be clothed with the constitutional attributes of an English king. Yet that result was substantially accomplished. And here let the fact be emphasized, that the kingship whose constitutional attributes the framers reproduced was not the shadowy kingship of to-day, which reigns, but does not govern. “The figure they had before them was not a generalized English king nor an abstract constitutional monarch; it was no anticipation of Queen Victoria, but George III. himself, whom they took for their model. Fifty years earlier or a hundred years later, the English king would have struck them in quite a different light.”

By the Reform Bill of 1832 and the Reform Act of 1867, the actual control of the English House of Commons—upon which the Revolution of 1688 had conferred political supremacy—was transferred from the titled and untitled landed aristocracy to the main body of the English people. By these acts, the House of Commons has been converted into substantially such a representative national assembly as the fathers intended to create when they laid the foundations of our House of Representatives. Mr. Bagehot, in his brilliant review of cabinet government in England, has said: “There are indeed practical men who reject the dignified parts of government. They say, We want only to attain results, to do business; a constitution is a collection of political means for political ends, and if you admit that any part of a constitution does no business, or that a simpler machine would do equally as well what it does, you admit that this part of the constitution, however dignified or awful it may be, is nevertheless in truth useless.” The House of Commons is the business department, the workshop, of the English Constitution; and its capacity to do business, its capacity to grapple with and dispose of the great and complicated mass of affairs that come before it, grows out of the subtle yet practical relation which it bears to the executive power as embodied in the modern system of cabinet government. As all the world knows, the English cabinet is simply a governing committee, chosen by the dominant party in the House of Commons out of its own ranks, to which the Crown commits the executive power for so long a time as it can command a majority in the popular chamber. The efficacy of this system grows out of the fact that the governing committee, or cabinet, is authorized and expected to take the initiative in all great matters of legislation, to formulate them in the shape of bills, and to present them in the House for acceptance or objection. If the judgment of the House is not accepted as final, an appeal can be taken to the people, who can, in the last resort, in voting for members, pass directly upon the great matters in which they feel the deepest interest. The business part of the English Constitution in its modern form rests, therefore, upon the following principles: first, the governing power in the state is vested in the House of Commons; second, the powers of the House belong for the time being to that political party which can command the votes of a majority of its members; third, the directing power of the dominant party is vested in a committee called the cabinet; fourth, it is the duty of the cabinet to formulate all the great measures of administration and legislation, and to take the initiative in presenting them to the consideration of the popular chamber. The steam power which drives the constitutional machinery is the power of party. The execution of that power the dominant party commits to a board of control, the cabinet, which is composed of the real chiefs of the party. Thus a corporate and impersonal leadership is created, which concentrates and applies the total force of the majority to the solution of every great question with which it is called upon to deal. In the modern English system there is a perfect adjustment between the legislative constitution and the political force which puts it in motion. It is the lack of that perfect adjustment between the driving force and the constitutional machinery which creates the friction and delay in legislation from which we now suffer in the United States. An impersonal and corporate party leadership, armed with the power to take the initiative in legislation, and to apply the total and undivided force of the party in possession of the executive office to the questions of overshadowing national importance, is the desideratum of American politics.

Those who have carefully observed the procedure of our national House of Representatives during the last twenty years can hardly differ as to the fact that it is yearly becoming more and more unequal to the task of discharging the vast and intricate duties which are cast upon it by the ever-increasing wants of our complex national life. That this inadequacy will increase as our domain widens and as our population increases can scarcely be doubted, provided no way can be found to remove the impediments which now choke up the main channel of national legislation. The public generally understands that at every session, after ten thousand or more bills and joint resolutions have been dumped in upon the House, it goes through a protracted period of outward activity, during which it deliberates very little, and legislates less, so far as vital national interests are concerned. The House is thus beginning to be looked upon as a vast graveyard, in which all serious national business is laid to rest. The conviction is every day deepening that the overshadowing questions touching taxation, finance, the public defense, and the like enter its portals only to perish in a despairing struggle with the elements of political obstruction, which even their urgency has no power to overcome. In this way the House is ceasing to be the workshop of the Constitution; it is degenerating into an expensive and unwieldy machine, which does little or no business of real value and importance. Only a few years ago, the confusion and stagnation became so acute that the House was driven to adopt the humiliating expedient of a “Steering Committee,” in the vain hope of extricating itself from the bog created by the inefficiency of its own cumbrous procedure. These well-known facts have for a long time been the subject of satire and of invective, to the detriment of the reputation of the House, both at home and abroad. One of the profoundest and most partial of our foreign critics (Mr. Freeman), after carefully observing the procedure of both houses, wrote not long ago as follows: “I may here quote the remark of an acute American friend, that the Senate is as much superior to the House of Lords as the House of Representatives is inferior to the House of Commons. … The Senate seemed truly a Senate; the House of Representatives struck me as a scene of mere hubbub rather than of real debate.” However this may be, one thing is certain, and that is that the inefficiency of the House does not grow out of any inferiority of its membership to that of the Senate, but rather out of the cumbersome and unwieldy parliamentary system by which its energies are paralyzed. The root of the evil lies in the absence of an efficient and organized connection between the cabinet and the members of the political party in the House which the cabinet represents; in the absence of the right of the cabinet to appear upon the floor of the House, and to lift up out of the mass of legislations the vital and urgent national questions upon which the legislative mind should be concentrated. There is no effective fighting force in the House, armed with the power to take the initiative and to force the great questions to an issue. The right of initiative in legislation is really reduced to zero by being subdivided among the forty or more standing committees of the House, to which was referred “all proposed legislation,” under the old eleventh rule.

The single question which the writer of this article desires to propound is this: Cannot the practical working of the legislative department of our Federal Constitution, constructed after the English model as it existed a century ago, be improved in the light of the invaluable changes which have been made in the old machine since that time? In other words, if our fathers were wise enough in their day to adapt to the wants of the new-born republic the very best of everything which then existed in the English political system, should not the present generation be fertile enough in political resources to utilize and adapt to our present needs a most valuable improvement in the old system, which is in successful daily operation before our eyes?

A fortunate thing it is that a growing reverence for the Constitution of the United States is ever present to thwart the empirics who are continually proposing to amend some vital part of its organic structure. But it is one thing to alter the organic structure of a system, and quite another to devise expedients by which the practical operation of that system may be rendered more harmonious. The operator of a Corliss engine, who would shrink from the task of tampering with any of its vital elements, is always striving, by a careful lubrication and adjustment of its parts, to obtain from it the greatest possible amount of work with the least possible amount of friction. Such is the task and mission of those who are now called upon to operate the constitutional machinery of the United States. The framers of the Constitution wisely left to congressional and party action a wide domain, in which it is practicable to devise, in the light of experience, methods and expedients by which the daily working of the federal system may be rendered more prompt and efficacious. There is no organic defect in the Constitution itself, but there is a lack of cohesion and adjustment between the legislative department and the political force which puts it in motion. Ours is a government of parties, — a system which presupposes compact party organization and efficient party leadership. It is an historical fact that, from the foundation of the government, the politics of the country have been dominated by one or the other of two great political organizations with more or less definite political creeds. In every national contest each party undertakes to formulate its convictions, and to announce them in the party platform which emanates from the leading minds that dominate the convention. Upon these platforms presidential candidates are nominated, and each party pledges itself, in the event of success, to give effect to its policy through practical legislation.

Down to this point our system of party organization works well. The trouble begins when the newly elected President and his cabinet, as the ostensible leaders of the successful party, undertake to give effect to the programme upon which it has triumphed. The fact that the cabinet has neither place nor voice in the popular chamber renders it unnecessary, in fact inexpedient, for the President to form his cabinet council out of the real leaders of his party. Thus, unknown and untried men—sometimes ambitious plutocrats who have simply made large gifts to the party chest—are often for the first time brought to the front as pilots of the ship of state. As the administration has neither place nor voice in either house, it can offer in neither, in its own name, any scheme of legislation designed to carry out a definite policy. In this way, the President and his cabinet are driven to the humiliating necessity of appealing to this or that party leader in the Senate or House to get up something in the way of a bill or bills to redeem the pledges of the party platform. The great magnates thus appealed to do not always agree with the administration even as to what their own party teaches; each one is apt to have his own personal “views,” and before long he begins to talk about “my policy.” Hampered by this impotent system of personalism, of organized confusion, the party in possession of the executive power soon begins to drift helplessly upon a sea of troubles. If any great party measure is formulated, it must be the work of some self-constituted individual who gives the measure his name; and if by chance it passes all the rocks and shoals in its path, he becomes at last one of the immortals.

The great defect in this eccentric and personal system is that no one can now acquire sufficient personal authority for the end in view. What man in the House to-day, on either side, can demand that it pause and listen to him, while he presses upon it the urgent national questions which should first be disposed of? Here the question may be asked, How is it that we have gone on so well under the old system for so long a time? The answer is that that time has passed; our legislative business has so increased that the time has now come when we must have greater facilities and more efficient methods. There was a time when England had no cabinet, in the modern sense of that term, to take the lead in the Commons, and there direct and drive the business of the kingdom. But that was when Parliament was little more than the local legislature of Great Britain, and not the supreme council of an empire. The business of our House of Representatives has grown, until it is nearly, if not quite, as vast and complex as that of the House of Commons. Under the pressure of it the primitive system has broken down, and we must now devise new expedients adequate to changed conditions. The practical question, therefore, is this: How can we so change our political and parliamentary methods as to obtain all the real advantages of the English cabinet system? If the end can be obtained at all, it must be through the adoption of two simple expedients.

First. The starting-point should be a bill which would confer upon the cabinet the right to a place and voice in each house, with the right to offer in each such schemes of legislation as it might see fit to advocate. Some years ago, Mr. Pendleton took a timid step in the right direction when he offered a bill which proposed to give to the cabinet the right to appear in each house, and to debate pending questions. The fatal defect in that bill was its failure to authorize the ministers to submit to the houses formulated measures of legislation. The end in view cannot be attained unless we vest in the administration the right to take the initiative, so as to force to an issue all the great questions. upon which the public mind is divided. It is not necessary that the ministers should have the right to vote; it is only necessary that they should have the right to submit bills and to debate them. Here it may be asked, What practical good would be accomplished if the administration could not command a majority in either house? The answer is that the executive government would possess the power to lift up out of the bog in which they now lie each one of the great questions as to which legislation is most needed; it could then force their consideration upon the House until definite action was had; and then in the first congressional election that followed the people could vote indirectly, in choosing their representatives, upon every question upon which the House had acted or refused to act. When a period of ten years is taken, we have quite as many, if not more, appeals to the people than usually occur in that length of time in England. The trouble is that in these elections the people are not permitted to pass upon definite propositions. Our congressional elections are therefore ceasing to be, what they should be, occasions upon which the people can express their views upon urgent and practical questions. It may also be asked, If the ministers are defeated in the House, should they be forced, as under the present French parliamentary system, to resign office before the constitutional term of the President expires? The answer is that under our Constitution no such provision would be either necessary or desirable. From the history of the Swiss cabinet system, which seems to stand midway between the parliamentary and congressional systems, we learn that a ministry with a definite term works well in practice. In a recent article in The Nation, entitled The Swiss Cabinet, the writer has this to say: “When, however, bills urged or approved by the Council are rejected by the Legislature, the ordinary parliamentary result does not take place. No one feels obliged to resign. The cabinet is elected for a given time, and, being thus established, sudden and frequent crises are avoided. … The chief objection to party government—violent and rapid changes of ministries—would seem to be overcome by a compromise which secures both responsibility to the majority in the Legislature and a known tenure of office.” The great end to be attained is an investing of the cabinet with the power to force every great national question to an issue in the House of Representatives, so that the people may pass directly upon the result in the next congressional election. The party that undertook to oppose the measures of the administration would of course be forced to propose better ones in order to maintain itself in the confidence of the people. Issues would thus be clearly defined, definite results would be reached, questions would be settled, and business would be disposed of.

Second. To vest in the cabinet the right to appear in both houses, initiate legislation, and then debate it, would be simply to make of them a dumb show, unless they go armed as the authorized and official representatives of the party to which they belong. The mere right to appear in the houses is a matter of no moment whatever, unless the cabinet can represent, in its corporate person, the political force which alone can make its presence effective. Nothing could be more simple than for each of the great parties, by a resolution of its national convention, to vest in its presidential candidate and his cabinet, in the event of success, the official party leadership, according to the English practice. In that way, the whole vexatious and inefficient system of personal dictatorship could be cut up by the roots, and supplanted by an impersonal system, which would be not only more effective, but more agreeable to the sensibilities of the average American. Nothing is easier for an American party man to understand than that the business and policy of his party are in the hands of a committee in whose selection he has had a voice. No party that has confidence enough in a man to elect him President should be unwilling to entrust to him the selection of the committee which shall shape the conduct of the party during his administration. From this condition of things two good results would follow: first, no party would dare to nominate any but its real chief for the presidential office; second, no President would dare to select any but the real party leaders as his cabinet ministers. The lead in public affairs would thus pass, neither to accidents nor to personal favorites and friends, but to the real leaders of the people.

If a readjustment is ever brought about, upon the lines indicated in this article, between the driving force of the political party in possession of the executive power and the legislative machinery which such force is expected to put in motion, the House of Representatives will of course become, in a sense in which it never was before, the workshop of the Constitution. It will be, more than ever before, a place in which the party which possesses a majority will be expected to enact legislation without unreasonable or vexatious obstruction from the minority. Our whole system of representative government rests upon the principle that the majority, after patiently listening to the minority, shall possess the ultimate power to decide what law or policy shall prevail. For years the two great parties have divided the votes of the House in such equal proportions that it has become the fashion for the minority systematically to pursue such a plan of obstruction as to make all legislation upon contested questions practically impossible. Under this system of obstruction, for which both parties are equally responsible, the usefulness of the House has in a great measure disappeared, and the country is left to suffer the consequences. Although we are groaning under a war-tariff, which both parties admit should be reduced and reformed, no legislation even on that subject is possible. The first mutterings of the storm have been heard. The party now in possession of a scant majority in the House has made a revolutionary effort so to weaken the opposition as to enable it to do business. Certain rulings of Speaker Reed have no doubt been revolutionary, if a departure from settled parliamentary precedent in the effort to do business can be called revolution. The most significant fact which the pending contest has so far developed is embodied in the statement which Speaker Reed is said to have made to the Associated Press, in explanation or apology for his conduct. The substance of this statement, as reported, is that the members of the House cannot be permitted to stand idly by and draw their pay; that every legitimate resource must be exhausted in the effort to expedite the public business. The public demand is becoming so imperious that the internal contentions of the House, which have for so long hindered and delayed urgent legislation upon a series of great national questions, shall cease, that the dominant party has been compelled to resort even to revolutionary tactics, in the effort to obtain the power to act. If the next congressional election shall put the Democratic party, as it possibly will, in possession of a bare majority, the same deadlock will recur, and the same imperious voice will demand that the majority shall be armed with the power to act. As the grievance which this un fortunate condition of things produces is national, the demand for its removal extends far beyond the limits of party. No reform will come from within until the leaders of both parties in the House are made to understand that there is an imperious popular demand that the lower house must so reform its procedure as permanently to vest in the majority of the dominant party, whichever it may be, the power to act.

It may be claimed that the Republican majority, by the adoption of the new rules, has already accomplished that result. If it has, a starting-point only has been gained. No decided and lasting change for the better can be brought about until there is established a real and practical connection between the working majority in the House and the executive government. The old worn-out congressional system, under which the initiative in legislation is vested in a large number of committees without any common leadership, can never be made adequate to the present wants of the country until it is so remodeled as to vest the initiative in legislation touching great national questions in a single grand committee, the cabinet, which should be clothed with the official leadership of the party which it represents.