Congress: The First 200 Years

By O'Neill, Thomas P., Jr. | National Forum, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Congress: The First 200 Years


O'Neill, Thomas P., Jr., National Forum


Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Jr. (Fall 1984)

As we approach the Bicentennial of the Constitution and the Congress it created, it is appropriate to consider how the legislative branch of our federal government has developed during its nearly 200 years of existence. It might be both interesting and useful to see how much Congress has turned out the way the Drafters of the Constitution conceived it, as well as how much of the evolution of Congress was not anticipated by them.

Take the development of political parties, for example. It is hard to imagine our government functioning without a strong two-party system. Yet the Continental Congress and the Articles of Confederation Congress existed without parties. The idea of political parties apparently never arose at the Constitutional Convention, either; a careful reading of James Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 does not reveal any indication that political parties were at all anticipated by the delegates.

Such a remarkable lack of prescience on the part of this talented and experienced group has had incredible consequences for the Congress and for the Nation. We normally consider the role of political parties in the House or the Senate only in terms of partisan votes on legislative issues or the means for selection of internal leadership positions. The existence of political parties, however, has changed dramatically the basic relationship between the Congress and the president in a way unanticipated in 1787.

Specifically, when the Constitutional Convention considered the method of electing the president, only one state delegation - Pennsylvania - felt that the president of the United States should be elected directly by the people. After much discussion and negotiation, the delegates decided upon indirect election of the president, using electors meeting in their separate states to cast their votes. Because of the lack of communications facilities at the time and the lack of nationally popular leaders other than George Washington, it was commonly assumed that the electoral vote generally would be indecisive. George Mason, one of the luminaries of the Revolutionary War period and a delegate to the Convention, guessed that "nineteen times in twenty" there would be no presidential majority in the electoral college.

How, then, did the delegates think that the president would be elected? The answer, found in Article II, Section I of the Constitution, is that the House of Representatives - each state delegation having one vote - would usually elect the president. The candidate with the majority of state delegations would become president. The second-place finisher would become vice president. If there were a tie for second, the Senate would choose the vice president. Coupled with modifications by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution, this is the arrangement today. …

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