Gimme that Old-Tyme Constitutionalism!
The passage of the state budget, followed by a flurry of bills passed and not passed in the last week of the 2011 Rhode Island General Assembly session, were clear demonstrations of the value and the wisdom of two foundational principles of American constitutional governance.
1. The Division of Powers, more commonly referred to as the “Separation of Powers”: In American-style constitutional systems, the Governor and the legislature both have a role in the making of laws, and it was this division of the lawmaking power that prevented an executive elected only by a plurality from imposing a tax policy that was unpopular with the majority. The legislature did their job of representing the 64% of the population who didn’t vote for the current Governor or his program, accurately reflecting the fact that the Governor’s high-profile taxation proposal was not popular or desired by the citizens of Rhode Island.
2. Bicameralism, Baby! The structure of two legislative chambers, neither of which owes its power to the other and both comprised of members who are electorally accountable to the people, was key in slowing down or stopping some of the legislation (the I-195 bill, binding arbitration) that otherwise would likely have been passed into law without appropriate time for public deliberation. Think how much different the outcome of the legislative session might have looked, if one individual like Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio could extend the power he holds over the Senate to the entire legislature. It is the bicameral structure of the legislature that prevents this from easily occurring.
There are often feelings that “old” structures of governance have only limited application in the modern world, but sometimes the structures of a venerable and tested system are exactly what is required to keep government responsive to the people.
Federalist 51 hits both the principles of the division of powers and bicameralism, for anyone interested in further thoughts on the subject.
No one has ever been able to make any good argument for a state bicameral government. It only exists because “we do it at the federal level”. But at the federal level, it makes sense. The House benefits the larger states and the Senate benefits the smaller states. That’s not the case in a state bicameral government. It makes no sense. It makes no more sense than a tricameral, quadcameral, quintcameral?
If two houses slowed down bills enough, what would three do? Why not four? Why not give each legislator equal power.
Oh wait, that was the intent.
Much of the Constitution was based upon sound and enlightened reasoning, but some of it is actually quite arbitrary or lacking. 50% majority voting, to name one example, is far too low a threshold and does nothing to encourage consensus-building. I personally think that the development of what is effectively super-majority voting under filibuster rules in the Senate is one of the best things to ever happen to the Federal government. Proportional representation of political parties was another huge missed opportunity that led directly to the two-party monstrosity of a government that we have now. In Ron Paul, we’ve seen how big of an effect on the dialogue even one member of Congress can have if given a seat at the table, even if they have no real voting power. The Commerce Clause – don’t get me started…