Posted in : Politics:
  • On : Aug 10, 2009


In Federalist 57, James Madison discussed safeguards that would prevent the House of Representatives from oppressing the people who elected them.   One was that laws passed by the House would apply in full to Members of that body:

“I will add as a fifth circumstance in the situation of the House of Representatives, restraining them from oppressive measures, that they can make no law which will not have its full operation on themselves and their friends, as well as on the great mass of the society. This has always been deemed one of the strongest bonds by which human policy can connect the rulers and the people together.”

Madison explained that the connection between legislators and citizens is essential.  “It creates between them that communion of interests and sympathy of sentiments of which few governments have furnished examples; but without which every government degenerates into tyranny.”  Madison continued, “If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the Legislature as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.”

To alleviate public fears that the government healthcare plan would over time crowd out private plans by manipulating subsidies and eligibility, Republicans proposed a bill in each house of Congress to link the interests of Congress and voters in a Madisonian way.  They proposed that if health care reform includes a public option, Members of Congress should commit to a communion of interest and assume the same option in lieu of the gold-plated choice plan Congress now enjoys under the Federal Employees’ Health Benefits Plan (FEHBP).  By doing so, Congress would have “interest and sympathy” toward making the public option as attractive as FEHBP, in terms of choice and cost.

However, the House refuses to discuss the matter.  The Senate Health Committee voted 12-11 in favor, but in real world politics, such a provision will not survive a House-Senate conference, even if the Senate should pass it.

Madison assumed voters would call to account lawmakers wicked enough to enact preferential laws.  Were voters in fact aware of how much better the FEHBP is than most private plans, they might well let their lawmakers know that such preferential differences had better be closed.

But most voters have busy lives and do not spend a great deal of time following public policy issues, so for awareness to grow the message must spread through the media.

The positive note is that the public is paying increasing attention to health care and has growing concerns.  The failure of President Obama and the Democratic leadership to push a massive health care bill through Congress before the scheduled August 7 recess improves the chance that the public can learn about the unwillingness of many Members of Congress to re-link their health insurance interests with the parallel benefits of their constituents.

President Obama has called on bloggers to keep up pressure to pass a health care bill: “It is important just to keep the pressure on members of Congress because what happens is there is a default position of inertia here in Washington.”

The President, a constitutional law professor, seems to have forgotten what the Framers of our Constitution regarded as the default position of the Senate.  Federalist 63, attributed to Madison  (but possibly Hamilton) clarified:

“Thus far I have considered the circumstances which point out the necessity of a well-constructed Senate only as they relate to the representatives of the people… To a people as little blinded by prejudice or corrupted by flattery as those whom I address, I shall not scruple to add, that such an institution may be sometimes necessary as a defense to the people against their own temporary errors and delusions. As the cool and deliberate sense of the community ought, in all governments, and actually will, in all free governments, ultimately prevail over the views of its rulers; so there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.”

Federalist 63 closed with a poignant rhetorical question which can be applied to our healthcare debate: “In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”

Thus when trillions are engaged in a massive reform of one-sixth of the American economy, in an area that is vastly complex and vital to all of us, the “default position” for assessing how health care is delivered to all Americans is to follow the advice given in The Federalist Papers.

John C. Wohlstetter is the founder of the issues blog “Letter From The Capitol,” the author of “The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us,” and a senior fellow at Discovery Institute.  John’s articles and commentary can be followed on Twitter: JohnWohlstetter1095

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