The House of Representatives

The Federalist No. 52

The Convention could do no better than adopt voter qualifications for the House equivalent to that of the legislature of each state given that a uniform formula imposed from above would never be accepted. The small number of qualifications for elected representatives enables individuals to hold office regardless of place of birth, age, wealth, or religious preference. However, when examining the past to justify the term of two years, the experiences of the ancients, of Britain, of Ireland, and of the colonies before the Revolution are too diverse and too disconnected from putative benefits to use them as guides.

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The Federalist No. 53

The proverb that “where annual elections end, tyranny begins” applies not in the case of a state with a fixed constitution which sets limits immune to legislative alteration and the injudicious expedient such alteration has been often put. The terms of existing state constitutions, ranging from six months to two years, cannot help for want of uniformity. Under these conditions two years would seem to be safe. Two-year terms also promote the kind of understanding of politics the federal office requires compared to the more narrow confines of the state, considering the needs to understand all states, foreign policy, and the more complex matters of the union. More experience in office also inures the assembly against corruption. Distance between home and the capital and the length of time it takes to detect election fraud also argues for two-year terms.

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The Federalist No. 54

Making representation and taxes based on proportion to population of each state makes the best of a difficult case. Madison says here that an argument can be made that allowing the southern states to count their slaves as 3/5 of a person for each may be defended in four ways. One is that slaves are not just property, they are also persons in some respects, which this rule honors. A second is that if slaves are to be counted for tax purposes they should be counted for representation. A third is that, as states decide voter qualifications for federal office, slave states could count slaves as whole persons; the 3/5th rule compromise satisfies the potential conflict. And a fourth is that property really should be factored into representation, as it is in New York, in which case the counting of slaves more accurately reflects the economic relationships of the South to the North. Indeed, it would be better if representation generally reflected real state wealth in addition to per capita proportionality. Finally, back to representation and taxation, combining the two will minimize state interests in exaggerating or diminishing their populations during census taking. (Madison opens the major arguments here with arguments that “may be offered on the opposite side,” a transition to the subjunctive that excuses him from attachment to the arguments themselves.)

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The Federalist No. 55

Several arguments have been advanced against the supposedly small size of the house, on grounds of safety, inadequate knowledge of local circumstances, they would be elite, and increasing disproportionate. Principle however will not yield an exact number. The states have wildly varying proportions, relative to each other and within. Distance and the limited powers of the federal government conduce to a smaller number. However, the number will grow, to as much as 400 (from 65) over the next 50 years as the population increases. However, our political safety is not endangered by the number 65 when they serve for such short terms. We managed under the Articles with fewer who could operate in secret. The barriers to corruption in the proposed system are strong and well-distributed; to suspect the system to still be endangered is to place so low a level of trust in human virtue that only despotism can restrain them from self-destruction.

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The Federalist No. 56

Regarding the putative lack of local knowledge such a small number of Representatives are likely to possess, three conditions should mitigate the concern. The interests of the federal House are limited to commerce, taxation, and the militia. These require limited local understanding, if any. The commerce issues relate to state and interstate matters; tax codes may be accumulated from state codes which Representatives will know from experience, and the militia requires almost no locally dependent information to manage. The greater difficulty will be Representatives learning the regulations of states other than their own, a challenge give the wide diversity of states, their interests, and their governments. Finally, we can look to England for some security—the House of Commons has direct representatives proportioned at about the same degree as the Constitution (one for every 30,000 persons), without losing their liberty or their shirts.

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The Federalist No. 57

This essay, constructed largely in the interrogative, argues that the constitution provides sufficient safeguards against electing members to the House who will promote the interests of the elite, the “few” on the ruins of the “many. Electors are qualified regardless of background, wealth, or education. Qualifications for office are no more than citizenship in effect, with no wealth, religious, birthright, or professional restriction. There are psychological barriers to corruption: representatives will assume they deserve the people’s trust; public service creates a spirit of honesty and benevolence; pride of office promotes constituents’ interests; frequent elections create frequent review; and those in the House are subject to the laws they pass. Republican principles, now manifest in every state, may be insufficient against human depravity, but one will search in vain for better principles. The larger size of the electorate cannot matter, as a larger size limits the prospects of personal ambition and bribes, and seems to work in England. Many states have districts as large as the districts for federal office; have they succumbed? Connecticut has no districts at all.

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The Federalist No. 58

While population growth without growth in House membership would be a serious problem, it is most unlikely. The Constitution requires re-examination every ten years, but Congress and the President must agree to increases in number (it requires a law). The House will naturally want an increase, as they have in all state legislatures. The Senate will likely concur because the House is the superior organ of Congress (the power of purse among others), its position would be right and reasonable, and the Senate benefits from augmented proportionality of new states. Note that size alone does not secure liberty; the House could get too large, turning into a mob controlled by just a few leaders. On another subject, the idea that votes should be supermajority or quorums should be a supermajority violates the principle of republican rule, for any such requirement is equivalent to minority rule.

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The Federalist No. 59

Congress has the power to alter the time, place, or manner of elections, a provision attacked by some who are otherwise supportive.  But this was the best compromise between state control alone or federal control alone.  Every government must have the means to preserve itself.  Times change.  Leaving elections in state hands without option invites future tribulations and potential suspension of the House by state’s withholding elections.  That the Senate is completely in state hands does not imply the same power should be applied to the House.  The former is a necessary but inconvenient component of federalism, one with limited realistic power to suspend the Senate.  There is no logical reason to apply the same principle to the House, whose ruin could be more easily accomplished given the two-year election cycle and the weight some states have over the House.

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The Federalist No. 60

While uncontrolled power of elections by the states incurs certain dangers, few hazards attend a temporary federal alteration. Any systematic exclusion of a class of voters would cause a riot. Diversity in the people reflected in the diversity of the Congress renders that group’s interest in privileging one group unlikely. Federal regulation of Senate elections does not involve place, so has no power to mischief. The classes which might be privileged by such a process are themselves too diverse to warrant national interest, and would be better applying themselves to controlling local elections. Agricultural interests, which will naturally dominate the membership of Congress, will not step on themselves, and have no vested interest in stepping on commercial interests. The idea that some aristocracy would profit from such controls wants for the controls themselves to have any beneficial effect for the aristocracy. Finally, only military intervention would enable useful control anyway, which intervention would amount to a kind of martial law whose use would surely be put to much more important ends.

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The Federalist No.61

Some object that the constitution does not require voters to vote in the county in which they live. This seems of little consequence either way, but state constitutions provide great latitude regarding place, and there seems to be no reason to suppose they have sacrificed the people’s liberty in so doing. On a positive note, the constitution provides a service in requiring elections in each state at the same time. It is not a disadvantage that the constitution does not specify a specific date; whatever date may have been proposed may have been found wanting, now or later, and changing it by amendment would be difficult, the date having no theoretical importance.

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