Stop blaming James Madison for the shutdown

By Valerie Strauss, Updated: 

James Madison, the principal author of the U.S. Constitution and the fourth president of the United States, is suddenly getting prime-time attention over his supposed role in the current government shutdown (even though he died 177 years ago).

For example, my colleague Dylan Mathews over at the great Wonkblog wrote that there are a number of people currently alive who could be blamed, “but the deeper answer is that it’s James Madison’s fault.” Why? Apparently because of  “an underlying disease in our democracy whose origins lie in the Constitution and some supremely misguided ideas that made their way into it in 1787, and found their fullest exposition in Madison’s Federalist no. 51.”


I asked Professor J.C.A. Stagg of the University of Virginia, a historian and the editor-in-chief of the Papers of James Madison project, about this. His response:

Of course, James Madison should not be blamed for the current situation. This is absurd nonsense, but Madison and other Founders have suffered a great deal of abuse and misuse on many issues of late.

Earlier, my colleague David Fahrenthold had sent Stagg a list of quotes from officials in Washington who say Madison had a role in the shutdown (which occurred after Republicans in the House insisting on linking the continued funding of the federal government to a delay in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare).

Here’s Stagg on Madison. Then we have a list of quotes on the late president from officials, with Stagg’s reaction to each:

Of course, “getting right with the Founders” has long been a standard trope in American politics, and Madison, more so than most, has come in for a good deal of abuse and misuse in such situations. Generally, it could be said than none of these quotes proves as much as the speakers would like to think and much depends on whether the quote has been wrenched out of context and misapplied in a situation that Madison could never have likely envisioned. However, it could also be pointed out that Madison had already had a good deal of experience with a dysfunctional Congress in the 1780s and that one of his reasons for seeking a stronger government in 1787 was to establish a political system that would actually be able to govern. He would almost certainly be appalled to see the tactics used today to produce paralysis and dysfunction AGAIN in American government. For him that would mean that the system was indeed failing — or had failed.

Following are the quotes, and Stagg’s response to each.

1. Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) said when he was talking about a measure to strip Congress and congressional staff of some health-insurance benefits:

Should Congress receive benefits for its members that are not available to private-sector employees who are in the same situation? I think the answer to that is “no.” And I’ll cite James Madison in Federalist 57. Madison said that the beauty of a constitutional system is that the ruling class can make no law which does not have its full operation on them and their friends as on the great mass of society.

Stagg’s response:

 Rep. De Santis is close to the mark in the sense that in Federalist 57 Madison was arguing against the view that Congress would act in ways that would elevate the “few” over the “many.” Madison was assuming that this would not happen on the grounds that the electoral process would function in ways that would produce an identity of interests between legislators and their constituents. But he also said that the purpose of any good constitution would be to produce wise and virtuous men who would be capable of discerning the public good and devising policies for its implementation. Whether Obamacare is a measure that falls outside of this last requirement would be a matter for endless debate, depending on your point of view. But even before the passage of that law, there had long been complaints that Congress received better benefits than most of their constituents and had often indulged in the practice of exempting its members from many laws and regulations that were applied to the general public.

2.) Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), talking about the importance of compromising before a government shutdown, said:

I want to conclude and say that James Madison was right, and not because he was a Virginian. He was just right to recognize that compromise is the essential element of our system. Think about it for a minute. If you set up a government, you have three different branches. The legislative branch has two Houses. You have to find compromise between the two Houses to move forward.

Stagg wrote:

Sen. Kaine provides no quote, but it is generally fair to say that Madison understood the importance of compromise and often sought to find the “golden mean” between extremes. He also said, on many occasions, that when different sections of the Constitution seemed to be in conflict, it was best to try and resolve the conflict within some understanding of the general spirit of what the Constitution was designed to achieve.

3.) Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), talking about the health-care law, said:

It reminds me of something James Madison wrote–I believe it was in Federalist No. 62. He said, if I may paraphrase him, it will be of little benefit to the American people that their laws may be written by individuals of their own choosing if those laws are so voluminous and complex that they can’t reasonably be read and understood by the American people. Well, 2,700 pages is a little too long. It is a lot too long. And I certainly know that 20,000 pages is much, much, much too long.

Stagg said:

Sen. Lee is correct in his quote as far as it goes. But in Federalist 62 Madison was defending the function of the Senate — a body whose design he did not greatly like –insofar as it would help provide for stability and consistency in legislation. When Madison railed against the complexity, prolixity, and instability in law-making in the 1780s, he was, more often that not, criticizing the practices and policies pursued by STATE legislatures, for which he hoped there would be a federal remedy. One could easily imagine Sen. Harry Reid taking Sen. Lee’s quote here and turning it against him on the grounds that the Senate was resisting a host of “unwise” measures that the Republicans were trying to attach to Obamacare and a continuing resolution.

4.) Rep. Mark Meadows, in a letter calling for the de-funding of Obamacare as a condition for passing a funding bill, wrote:

James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 58 that ‘the power over the purse may, in fact, be regarded as the most complete and effectual weapon . . . for obtaining redress of every grievance.”

Stagg’s response:

Rep. Meadows’s quote is also correct — but again only so far as it goes. None of the Founders doubted that the power of the purse could be an ultimate sanction in the hands of the House, though it would be impossible to prove that their understanding of this would have extended to the point of shutting down the entire government as opposed to refusing appropriations for particular policies. But again, the context is important. In Federalist 58 Madison was answering the charge that the House of Representatives — which in the first Congress was a very small body with only 65 members — would not be expanded so that the number of representatives would increase as the general population grew. Madison argued that the states would have an interest in enlarging the House over time for a variety of reasons, to which he added his observation that the House would always hold the power of the purse, as Rep. Meadows said, for “obtaining a redress of every grievance.” But the Congressman has omitted the rest of Madison’s sentence here, which states “and for carrying into effect every just and salutary measure.” Whether Obamacare and closing down the government fall into the category of “just and salutary” measures, of course, is another question.