Exploring Federalist 51: Legislative Power
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Exploring Federalist 51: Legislative Power

Who should exercise lawmaking power in a constitutional republic? The Framers in the Constitutional Convention knew, that of all the powers of government they could bestow, the most significant was
the power to make laws. James Madison wrote in Federalist 51 that “in republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” While the three branches of government check each other, they are not created equal. The Framers wrote the Constitution in order of importance, beginning with the structure and powers of Congress. Article I reads: “ALL Legislative Powers
herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.” The Framers could have divided the legislative power among the branches. After all, in other countries, kings were
free to proclaim laws as well as execute them. But the United States broke precedent by vesting all federal legislative power in Congress. So the Framers were intentional about giving Congress the greatest responsibilities. But they weren’t naive. As Madison famously said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Article I reflects this concern, creating
structural safeguards to keep Congress in check. The Framers believed, that of all the branches, Congress would best represent “We the People” and their diverse interests. At the same time, they knew legislatures tended to expand their own power. The Framers responded by dividing Congress’s power between the House and the Senate. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Until the ratification of the 17th Amendment, members of the House were chosen by the people directly, and members of the Senate were elected by state legislatures. This way, the states restrained the national government, and the two houses restrained each other. Theoretically, Congress would only be able to pass laws that preserved the balance of power and that benefited the whole nation. The Framers also limited Congress’s powers in Article I, Section 8, which gives Congress specific, enumerated functions. All other powers remained with the states
and the people. Above all, it was critical to the Framers
that the body of lawmakers be accountable to the people. Madison argued, “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.” Does the modern Congress predominate the other branches? Has the responsibility for lawmaking changed
over the years? Has the Congress retained all lawmaking authority?


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