April 3, 2006

Tocqueville on State Legislatures

Marc Comtois

Here's a historical addendum to Andrew's point about Voter Initiative and it's purported incompatibility with Representative government. Tocqueville's observations concerning the functions of each House of the bicameral state legislature's of the early 19th century seem to imply that they already were getting a bit redundant.

The legislative power of the state is vested in two assemblies, the first of which generally bears the name of the Senate.

The Senate is commonly a legislative body, but it sometimes becomes an executive and judicial one. It takes part in the government in several ways, according to the constitution of the different states; but it is in the nomination of public functionaries that it most commonly assumes an executive power. It partakes of judicial power in the trial of certain political offenses, and sometimes also in the decision of certain civil cases. The number of its members is always small.

The other branch of the legislature, which is usually called the House of Representatives, has no share whatever in the administration and takes a part in the judicial power only as it impeaches public functionaries before the Senate.

The members of the two houses are nearly everywhere subject to the same conditions of eligibility. They are chosen in the same manner, and by the same citizens. The only difference which exists between them is that the term for which the Senate is chosen is, in general, longer than that of the House of Representatives. The latter seldom remain in office longer than a year; the former usually sit two or three years.

By granting to the senators the privilege of being chosen for several years, and being renewed seriatim, the law takes care to preserve in the legislative body a nucleus of men already accustomed to public business, and capable of exercising a salutary influence upon the new-comers.

By this separation of the legislative body into two branches the Americans plainly did not desire to make one house hereditary and the other elective, one aristocratic and the other democratic. It was not their object to create in the one a bulwark to power, while the other represented the interests and passions of the people. The only advantages that result from the present constitution of the two houses in the United States are the division of the legislative power, and the consequent check upon political movements; together with the creation of a tribunal of appeal for the revision of the laws. [Emphasis added]

Of course, the irony here in Rhode Island is that we have effectively created two "aristocratic" houses in our legislature. Maybe one of the first Voter Initiative's should be for term limits?