Qualified for Congress?

Article excerpt


Vacant seats in the United States Senate have been or will be created in Illinois, Delaware and New York because of the actual or impending resignations of President-elect Barack Obama, Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton. (Mr. Obama has already resigned, while Mr. Biden's and Mrs. Clinton's resignations are scheduled).

At present, each of the three states empowers the governor alone to make appointments to fill Senate vacancies. In Delaware, Gov. Ruth Ann Minor has announced her intent to replace Mr. Biden with his former aide Ted Kaufman, who is expected to lateral the seat over to Beau Biden - the vice president-elect's son. In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich is accused of putting the Senate seat up for auction. New York's Gov. David Paterson has been prominently courted by Senate hopeful Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, whose marquee name and pedigree inspires in equal degree envy, obsequiousness and awe.

Slabs of commentary have been spoken or written about the qualifications of the various candidates craving a gubernatorial nod without addressing their fitness to discharge the congressional oath of office: namely to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. That oversight is troublesome, if not alarming. It explains why Congress has shrunk to the size of Hans Christian Anderson's Thumbelina on the constitutional stage. Voters, candidates and members of Congress are thoroughly unschooled in the powers, duties and responsibilities the Constitution assigns to the legislative branch - the first branch. That ignorance or indifference has for decades been regularly exploited by the executive branch to usurp, evade or defy legislative authority without encountering resistance. The result has transformed the republic featuring checks and balances and frugal government into an executive branch empire perpetually at war, cloaked in secrecy, and spending money on economic or social capers with the extravagance of Marie Antoinette.

The typical member elected to the 111th Congress scheduled to convene in January cannot in good faith subscribe to the congressional oath because he or she does not know what the Constitution means or what supporting and defending the Constitution requires a member to do. While it is highly irresponsible for a constitutionally illiterate candidate to seek a House or Senate seat, it is not disqualifying.

The United States Supreme Court held in Powell v. McCormack (1969) that the Constitution prohibits any limitations on qualifications for Congress other than age, residency and citizenship as stipulated in Article I, sections 2 and 3. Alexander Hamilton elaborated at New York's ratification convention: [T]he true principle of a republic is that the people should choose whom they please to govern them. Representation is imperfect in proportion as the current popular favor is checked. …