Madison mainly discusses the issue of a fixed term for the House of Representatives in this paper. But the issue remains, as in the previous four papers concerning the independence of each branch of government, of how the House can represent the people without corruption. Madison sums up the issue succinctly towards the end of the paper:
the greater the power is, the shorter ought to be its duration; and, conversely, the smaller the power, the more safely may its duration be protracted.
At the beginning of the paper Madison alludes to the conflict at the Constitutional Convention concerning how Congress would wield power. Having been a single House prior to the new constitution, the compromise reached was that Congress would be split in two. The House of Representatives, the lower house, was to be a representational body for the people of each state, while the Senate would represent the interests of each state equally, regardless of the size of their populations. Because the House of Representatives was proportionally representational, it needed to be as closely aligned to the will of the people as possible. A congress formed of only one House would be more open to corruption and less representative.
Madison defines the qualifications to stand for election as being 25 years old or older, at least 7 years a citizen of the United States, an inhabitant of the state they wish to represent and must not be a government employee (
be in no office under the United Sates).
The need to ensure the House was representative raises the question as to how often the House should be elected and who should determine elections. Madison argues that that power should not be left to States to regulate, since it would hand too much power to the States over the affairs of the federal government. At the same time, regular elections were needed to ensure the House of Representatives was aligned to the will of the people. Madison looks to history, both of England and Europe, as well as America itself, to show that various terms of government had been successful, and to therefore argue that biennial elections would in no way endanger the
liberties of the people.
He records that early English parliamentary elections were often at the discretion of the monarch. So too, he records, the Irish parliaments have in the past only been elected infrequently, with the changing of a prince or some significant event. Madison believes this practice to be against the interests of the people and their liberty. Other rulers like Charles II and William III determined parliaments should be elected every three years and
frequently (by which Madison takes to mean every three years) respectively. Of the States in America, he notes that elections were held anywhere between one and seven years in the colonies under British rule. Virginia, which was the first colony to stand against the British had septennial elections – every seven years. His point is that biennial elections would not endanger the liberty of the people, although he does not make a clear case as to why this would be better than other durations which he also finds to have been successful. It is mostly implied in his earlier argument that the will of the people needs to be closely reflected in the composition of the House of Representatives.
Madison concludes by returning to the discussion about oversight. By dividing the power of Congress, and limiting the House of Representatives through biennial elections, he argues that the House will have oversight through the people and Congress’s upper house, the Senate. This would limit corruption through the House of Representatives’ limited power and its fixed terms.
20 May 2019