The Founders and State Representation in Congress

A number of commentators are supporting reforms designed to give state legislatures more authority over their congressional delegations. These are rooted in a concern that the federal government has preempted too much state authority and imposed expensive unfunded mandates. In a future post I will examine the most popular of these proposals: the repeal of the 17th Amendment (direct election of U.S. Senators). However, to start the conversation about the utility of potential reforms I thought it might be interesting to return to some of the Founders’ thoughts on who should have the most control over members of Congress: the states or the representatives’ constituents.

One interesting insight into this question is a debate over whether members of the new “national legislature” should be compensated by the states or the new federal government. The following deliberations come from James Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.

Supporters of letting the states provide compensation argued that there were different standards of living throughout the country and that individual states would be the best judges of a salary. A less benign argument claimed that the interests of the poorer states would be different than those of the “old States” and the latter should not have to “pay the expenses of men who would be employed in thwarting their measures and interests”.

This rationale that Congress would be nothing more than a battleground for the naked interests of individual state legislatures was rejected by the rest of the Convention.  Edmund Randolph (VA) argued that “if the States were to pay the members of the National Legislature, a dependence would be created that would vitiate the whole System. The whole nation has an interest in the attendance & services of the members.” James Wilson (PA) “thought it of great moment that the members of the National Government should be left as independent as possible of the State Governments in all respects.” Alexander Hamilton (NY) concurred and “was strenuous against making the National Council dependent on the Legislative rewards of the States. Those who pay are the masters of those who are paid.” Alexander Hamilton distinguished between “the feelings and views of the people – and the Governments of the States arising from the personal interest and official inducements which must render the latter unfriendly to the General Government” (italics in original).

The aforementioned comments are derived from the debate about pay for the House of Representatives. What about the state-based Senate whose members were originally chosen by state legislatures? An amendment to have Senator’s salaries funded by the states was rejected by the Convention.  James Madison (VA) argued that this would make the Senate “mere Agents & Advocates of State interests & views, instead of being the impartial umpires & Guardians of justice and general Good.”

The debate over pay is only one aspect of the Founder’s vision for state representation in Congress. However, it shows that they envisioned a national legislature that would rise above the parochial interests of individual state legislatures and deliberate on a common good for the whole country. The House was designed to respond to the needs of its citizens, rather than individual state legislatures, and even the state-based Senate was expected to be objective when considering conflicts between states.


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