Thanks to James, Rufus, and Gouverneur

If the bank rescue legislation , approved and signed into law last week, saves the nation from financial Armageddon – and I, for one, have my fingers crossed on that one – some credit will belong to the men who designed the government in 1787.
Two parts of the Constitution were central to this congressional action. The first was creating a smaller, “upper house” of Congress with longer, staggered terms of office. Designed to be thoughtful, cushioned from the “gusts of faction” that beset daily political life, the Senate performed in the recent crisis exactly as the Constitution’s Framers intended.
The House of Representatives, all of whose members face re-election in a few weeks, first rejected the legislation, but then the Senate produced bi-partisan support for the bill, a thumping 74-25 margin. Reinforced by this example, House leaders mustered a solid majority, 263-171, for slightly revised legislation. Let’s look at what the men in Philadelphia were thinking about the relationship between the Senate and the House.
At the beginning of the convention, Edmund Randolph presented the Virginia Plan, an outline of a republican government. Under that plan, the people would elect one branch of the legislature, which itself would choose a smaller, second branch. That second body, Randolph said, would serve as a bulwark against “the turbulence and follies of democracy.”
Edmund Randolph of Virginia
The “second branch” became the Senate, with two senators chosen from each state. With their six-year terms staggered, only one-third of the senators would face the voters in any election year. So constituted, James Madison of Virginia argued, the Senate would be a “fence” against “fickleness and passion,” providing stability to the government
The Senate, however, frightened many. Randolph ultimately found in the Senate “the countenance of an aristocracy.” Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts complained that it was “as complete an aristocracy as ever was framed.”
Nevertheless, the delegates adopted the Senate as a buffer between the people and government power. Greater wisdom, they hoped, would flow from its smaller size and less frequent elections.
For this month’s bank rescue package, the Senate’s approval of the legislation changed the panicky momentum started when the House first rejected it. The Senate’s action bought time for House members to reflect and reverse themselves from a course was largely based on fears of popular discontent.
Now if only there were a way to control the panicky elements in the economy.
Next up: The second key constitutional provision (what a cliff-hanger!).


  1. Nate Levin on October 13, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    David, I believe one additional element in the House’s turnaround on the bailout was the $150 B in added sweeteners. I agree that even that probably wouldn’t have worked without the stabilizing influence of the Senate.

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