Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Constitutional Machinery vs Congressional Machinations

Never forget that a congress is first and foremost a political animal. While some members of a congress may place the people above their politics, and their country before their caucus, collective congresses will nearly always put priority on the accumulation and maintenance of political power. It has been so for the entire history of these re-United States.

On this day in 1824, the Congress of the United States, precisely following the Constitution's 12th Amendment, selected John Quincy Adams as the next President of the United States. It was an operational test of modifications made to the new American machine of government and it worked like a charm--for the party in power.

The 12th Amendment to the United States' Constitution, proposed by the Congress in December of 1803 and ratified by the requisite number of the States in June of 1804, corrected a couple of perceived "flaws" in the way Article II of the original constitution proscribed election of the President and Vice President via the Electoral College. Prior to the 12th Amendment; Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 provided that representatives from each State in the Electoral College, would each cast two votes for a candidate for President with the stipulation that the two could not be inhabitants of the same State. The candidate receiving a majority of the votes of the electors would be President, the next highest vote-getter would be Vice President. No majority vote was required for election of the Vice President; ties were decided by the Senate. If no presidential candidate received a majority of the votes cast by the Electoral College, Article II empowered the House of Representatives to choose the next President, from among the top five vote-getters.

One of the "flaws" in this original system was that if each member of the Electoral College voted a strict Party line, there would be a tie between the two candidates from the most popular ticket. This occurred in 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr of the Democratic-Republican (I kid thee not) party each received 73 electoral votes (against the Federalists' John Adams' 64 and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney's 63). The Democratic-Republicans bungled a plan to have one of the Electors abstain on one Burr vote thereby giving Jefferson the majority needed to be elected President. History does not record which elector failed to get or comply with the Abstention Memo. The election then went to the Congress of the United States to decide--the outgoing Federalist dominated Congress. Jefferson was the Federalists' greatest political opponent, and the Federalists in Congress voted for the more palatable and less hated Burr instead of Jefferson. The first ballot, and next thirty-four, were exactly the same. Eight states for Jefferson, six for Burr. There were sixteen States and the Constitution called for a simple majority (not plurality)--nine, in this case--to win.

Oh, and here's where it gets really salacious. Alexander Hamilton, Washington's closest aide in the Revolutionary War and greatest champion of the Federalist cause during the push to replace the Articles of Confederation with the new Federal Constitution, was a close friend of Jefferson's and an antagonist of Burr's. Hamilton, although a Federalist, campaigned vociferously for Jefferson in the halls of congress during the marathon congressional version of the movie Groundhog Day. Hamilton supported Jefferson because he was "by far not so dangerous a man" as Burr. Hamilton's animus against Burr was evidently rooted in Burr's defeat of Hamilton's father-in-law in the 1791 U.S. Senate seat race in New York. Hamilton's exertions against Burr successfully changed one Federalist vote from Burr to Jefferson on the House's 36th ballot and Jefferson was elected President. Turns out Burr was indeed a dangerous man with a long, unforgiving memory. Vice President Burr killed Hamilton in a duel on July 11th, 1804.

The other "flaw" in the original Electoral College process was the fact that the top two vote-getters for President would most likely have campaigned against each other as political rivals, even if nominally from the same party. An unscrupulous politician (excuse the redundancy) so elected as Vice President could easily undermine policies of the President or even be tempted to engineer a coup de tat to oust and replace the elected President. The Republican Jefferson had found himself in just such a position of opposition when he had been elected as the Federalist Adams' vice president in 1796. The Twelfth Amendment, by providing for the election of the President and Vice President as a combined party ticket, theoretically at least, eliminated this possibility.

Which brings us to the Presidential Election of 1824. When Federalist John Quincy Adams (son of the second President), populist Democrat Andrew Jackson (the hero of the Battle of New Orleans), Georgia's William Crawford, and Kentucky's Henry Clay (and Speaker of the House), all failed to garner the necessary majority of the votes of the Electoral College, the newly adopted Twelfth Amendment came into play:

"The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice...," and "...The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President..."

In plain Murican: If no candidate receives a majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives picks the President from among the top three vote-getters for President, and the Senate picks the Vice President from among the top two vote-getting VP candidates. Interestingly, there is no requirement for consideration of party or ticket. So, in a case where different parties controlled the House and Senate, a President and Vice President could, in theory, be elected from different parties. Imagine, if you will: President Obama and Vice President Palin... In fact, such a dilemma very nearly could have arisen in 1992, when early on (before Ross Perot exposed himself as the whack-job that he is) it looked like there would a be a possibility of none of the three tickets (Bush-Quayle, Clinton-Gore, and Perot-Stockdale) winning a majority of the Electoral College vote. With the House then in the hands of the Democrats and the Senate majority held by the Republicans, all kinds of strange combinations can be imagined to have resulted!

In the 1824 presidential election, Andrew Jackson garnered 99 electoral votes. John Quincy Adams got 84. One hundred and thirty-one was the number of a majority and so the 12th Amendment was invoked.

And, here's where it gets salacious, again. Jackson was a visceral and vocal opponent of many of the Federal institutions created over the first couple of decades by the Federalists (Washington, Hamilton, et, al.). He was a popular military hero and feared by the establishment. Henry Clay, whose votes in the Electoral College had prevented either Adams or Jackson from getting a majority, threw his weight (he was Speaker of the House, remember) behind Adams and convinced the House to elect Adams over Jackson, in contravention of the will of a majority of the people of the United States. Clay was rewarded for this act by appointment as Adam's Secretary of State.

Congresses always act in their own interests. Important point to remember as the Health Care Reform debate swirls.

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