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Coffee Break: Caught Between Constitution and Independence Avenues 
28 May 2014

Coffee Break: Caught Between Constitution and Independence Avenues 

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVESI spent last week in our nation’s fair capitol, and as I was in a car on the way to the Hill, my driver was trying to tell me that the Senate Hart office building was on Independence Avenue – which – for those of you familiar with DC know that is so NOT the case.  We got into a bit of a discussion before I finally had to pull up a map on my phone and show him that Hart is on Constitution Avenue, and the House office buildings are on Independence. He then asked me the next logical question: why do you have two bodies that legislate? Why indeed. Blame or praise the Founding Fathers.

Having two chambers that require a positive vote to advance legislation was the perfect embodiment of “checks and balances” desired by the Founding Fathers to prevent tyranny. While we as a country may be a long way from tyranny, perhaps the unintended consequence of this system, is that today it’s virtually impossible to get legislation passed. I was afforded the opportunity to try and do just that last week and subsequently had to visit both sides repeatedly. First up: the House.

Generally speaking, the House has a reputation for being more boisterous, quicker to pass laws, hold impassioned debates, and operate at a more frenzied pace. The minimum age required to be a member of the House is 25 as opposed to 30 in the Senate. The Founding Fathers thought the House to be more representative of the will of the people – thus their representation of districts within a state as opposed to Senators who represent their entire state and, who were intended to think more about the nation as a whole. They wanted the Senate to be more deliberative and thoughtful.

So flash to reality – how’s it working? Most of the offices I met with voiced support for my client who has a niche problem that we tried to solve through other means only to be turned back to the Hill to try and get legislation passed.  No small feat in this environment! And although most on the House were ready to put pen to paper and pass something, one office asked a pertinent question: “Should we legislate? And, isn’t there another way? Because we often do legislation that then has unintended consequences…”

The first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it.

            John Jay, Federalist No. 64 March 7, 1788

It just so happens that there is a precedent in current law that is beneficial to my client, but contrary to reputation and maybe even contrary to what the Founding Fathers thought, this resistance to legislate almost seemed senatorial.  Which brings me back to Constitution Avenue and the Senate.

Again most of the offices were generally supportive until we met with the two offices most knowledgeable on our topic du jour.  When I questioned why we just couldn’t get this generally non-controversial, budget neutral item resolved for this client, the response went something like this:  “Well, we are the Senate. We are the more deliberative body and anything that gets sent over from the House on unanimous consent will be gone over a with a fine-toothed comb.”

True to Founding Father form, they flat out stated their full intention not only to take their deliberative time, but also hinted at monkeying around with the entire program, making our whole effort much more difficult.

There is a famous story that involves an argument between George Washington who favored having two chambers, and Thomas Jefferson, who did not.  They were, as the story goes drinking coffee when Washington asked Jefferson, “ Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?”

“To cool it, “replied Jefferson.

“Even so, said Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

The practical effect of the senatorial saucer puts me and my client right in the middle of Constitution and Independence.  Maybe we should try the White House coffee next week.





Diane Rogers, Capstone Partner, draws on 25 years of experience working in state and federal government, offering clients expertise in public policy, politics, management, and strategic planning. Contact Diane here to find out more.



The views in this blog post represent the viewpoints of individual team members, not Capstone National Partners as a whole.

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