Protecting Stable Governance – Virginia vs. Federal Government


by James C. Sherlock

James madison

An opinion piece by Catherine Rampell in The Washington Post was titled, “No a sane person would design a government that works like ours.

She meant that her favorite changes to American governance were thwarted by Senate rules. The “sane person” was revealing. Anyone who disagreed with her was not sane. I don’t think I abuse the term by calling it dogmatic – driven by religious zeal.

The target of her outrage, although she did not name it, was James Madison. See The need for the Senate in the federal government, James Madison, Federalist 62, 1788.

The need for a senate is no less indicated by the propensity of all single and numerous assemblies to yield to the impulse of sudden and violent passions, and to allow themselves to be drawn by factious leaders into intemperate and pernicious resolutions. . . . All that should be noted is that a body which is to correct this infirmity must itself be free from it, and therefore must be fewer in number. He must, moreover, possess great firmness, and consequently hold his authority by a tenure of considerable duration. . . .

. . . The mutability in public councils, resulting from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified, indicates, in the strongest way, the need for a stable institution in government. . . .

Madison designed the Constitution to ensure that small temporary majorities (or Senate ties like now) cannot make fundamental changes in governance. The passions of the day were designed to cool down in the Senate.

While the Federal Senate has certainly changed a lot since Madison’s document, it has maintained its role of providing stability through these changes.

The left wants revolutions. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had the Senate majorities to carry them out. Joe Biden doesn’t. Thus the passions illustrated by the feverish column of Mrs. Rampell.

Without stability there can be no real unity and, crucially, no American can plan their life or affairs on the basis of stable governance assumptions.

Virginia has much less effective guarantees.

Georges mason

Democrats, by taking control of the General Assembly, governor and attorney general in 2018, fundamentally shifted Virginia’s laws to the left. Some like it, some don’t, but it was not a turning point for stability. There is no filibuster in the tightly divided Virginia Senate.

Republicans, if they take control of the Virginia Senate in 2023, will reciprocate.

The difference is that the Democratic Party, the party in government, will always go far and quickly for increased control of the government aligned with its priorities. Republican priorities are generally to roll back government control, not extend it in a different direction.

The Virginia Constitution of 1776, written in large part by George Mason, provided for a popularly elected House of Delegates. Most of the power resided in this house, which initiated the legislation. He created a new 24-member Virginia Senate, but there was no amendment process.

He thus prescribed a form of parliamentary government which mirrored that of England. The governor, like the king, could not even veto a bill and could act as head of the state militia only on the advice of his Council of State, whose members were elected by the legislature.

The Virginia Senate evolved from there, but it never achieved Federal Senate status because it was not deemed necessary for this body to provide stability. The Virginia Way was supposed to be inherently stable. Even Terry McAuliffe in his 2014 inaugural address referred to the “Virginia Way” as being consensus building.

This was soon abandoned with the change of control of the General Assembly. There was no mechanism to build consensus, just one-vote majorities and a governor signing.

As it turns out, the current system in Virginia is probably not the best way to run a state. This is probably not the best way to provide stable assumptions that Virginians can plan their lives on.

Madison, in her brilliant Constitution, had a better idea.

For Virginie, it is now too late.


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