Johnson's "Citizen Legislator" Meme is Actually Exact Opposite of What Founders Wanted | WisCommunity

Johnson's "Citizen Legislator" Meme is Actually Exact Opposite of What Founders Wanted

Ah-Ha!  Ron Johnson has found a loophole from none other than "our Founders" that the people serving in the U.S. Senate should be "citizen legislators" (such as Johnson) and that the Founders especially disliked the idea of "career politicians" (such as Feingold).  Here's how he explained it to the NYT:

I would be going to Washington as a citizen legislator.  I think that’s really what our founders had envisioned: somebody who’s lived a full life and you take that lifetime of experience and try to apply it to the problems of the nation. Then you go home.

The problem with this Tea Party-inspired argument is that it is not only not true, but the exact opposite is true:  The founders wanted well-qualified, experienced, long-serving people in the U.S. Senate and specifically did you want political neophytes like Johnson in there.

First of all, the founders didn't use the term, "citizen legislator"-- it is nothing more than a contrived term of convenience used most often by political candidates, like Johnson, that lack qualifications and experience. 

Right wingers often use the term "citizen legislator" with this quote from Constitution author, James Madison, about what a "citizen legislator" should look like: called for the most part from pursuits of a private nature, continued in appointment for a short time.”  This quote, of course, also works well in calls for term limits.

The problem, is that this is the king of all of out-of-context quotes and is the exact opposite of what Madison was saying.  Madison was actually agruing why we don't want a guy "called for the most part from pursits of a private nature, continued in appointment for a short tim." Here is the full the quote from the The Federalist, No. 62: 

Another defect to be supplied by a senate lies in a want of due acquaintance with the objects and principles of legislation. It is not possible that an assembly of men called for the most part from pursuits of a private nature, continued in appointment for a short time, and led by no permanent motive to devote the intervals of public occupation to a study of the laws, the affairs, and the comprehensive interests of their country, should, if left wholly to themselves, escape a variety of important errors in the exercise of their legislative trust. It may be affirmed, on the best grounds, that no small share of the present embarrassments of America is to be charged on the blunders of our governments; and that these have proceeded from the heads rather than the hearts of most of the authors of them. What indeed are all the repealing, explaining, and amending laws, which fill and disgrace our voluminous codes, but so many monuments of deficient wisdom; so many impeachments exhibited by each succeeding against each at preceding session; so many admonitions to the people, of the value of those aids which may be expected from a well-constituted senate?

The funny thing is that the Federalist No. 62 was actually about how the U.S. Senate should be designed and what the ideal Senaotor would look like.  Madison devoted most of words in the paper to specifically arguing against the idea of term limits saying:

The mutability in the public councils arising from a rapid succession of new members, however qualified they may be, points out, in the strongest manner, the necessity of some stable institution in the government. Every new election in the States is found to change one half of the representatives. From this change of men must proceed a change of opinions; and from a change of opinions, a change of measures. But a continual change even of good measures is inconsistent with every rule of prudence and every prospect of success. The remark is verified in private life, and becomes more just, as well as more important, in national transactions.

To trace the mischievous effects of a mutable government would fill a volume. I will hint a few only, each of which will be perceived to be a source of innumerable others.

In the first place, it forfeits the respect and confidence of other nations, and all the advantages connected with national character. An individual who is observed to be inconstant to his plans, or perhaps to carry on his affairs without any plan at all, is marked at once, by all prudent people, as a speedy victim to his own unsteadiness and folly. His more friendly neighbors may pity him, but all will decline to connect their fortunes with his; and not a few will seize the opportunity of making their fortunes out of his. One nation is to another what one individual is to another; with this melancholy distinction perhaps, that the former, with fewer of the benevolent emotions than the latter, are under fewer restraints also from taking undue advantage from the indiscretions of each other. Every nation, consequently, whose affairs betray a want of wisdom and stability, may calculate on every loss which can be sustained from the more systematic policy of their wiser neighbors. But the best instruction on this subject is unhappily conveyed to America by the example of her own situation. She finds that she is held in no respect by her friends; that she is the derision of her enemies; and that she is a prey to every nation which has an interest in speculating on her fluctuating councils and embarrassed affairs.

The internal effects of a mutable policy are still more calamitous. It poisons the blessing of liberty itself. It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulgated, or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known, and less fixed?

Another effect of public instability is the unreasonable advantage it gives to the sagacious, the enterprising, and the moneyed few over the industrious and uniformed mass of the people. Every new regulation concerning commerce or revenue, or in any way affecting the value of the different species of property, presents a new harvest to those who watch the change, and can trace its consequences; a harvest, reared not by themselves, but by the toils and cares of the great body of their fellow-citizens. This is a state of things in which it may be said with some truth that laws are made for the few, not for the many.

In another point of view, great injury results from an unstable government. The want of confidence in the public councils damps every useful undertaking, the success and profit of which may depend on a continuance of existing arrangements. What prudent merchant will hazard his fortunes in any new branch of commerce when he knows not but that his plans may be rendered unlawful before they can be executed? What farmer or manufacturer will lay himself out for the encouragement given to any particular cultivation or establishment, when he can have no assurance that his preparatory labors and advances will not render him a victim to an inconstant government? In a word, no great improvement or laudable enterprise can go forward which requires the auspices of a steady system of national policy.

But the most deplorable effect of all is that diminution of attachment and reverence which steals into the hearts of the people, towards a political system which betrays so many marks of infirmity, and disappoints so many of their flattering hopes. No government, any more than an individual, will long be respected without being truly respectable; nor be truly respectable, without possessing a certain portion of order and stability.

Madison is clearly arguing that, at least in the U.S. Senate, that long serving "career politicians" (such as Feingold) are much more preferable to political neophytes (such as Johnson).

Most importantly, this issue was thoroughly debated while they were writing the Constitution and Madison's view prevailed with the other Founding Fathers. In other words, agree or disagree, but the official "Founding Fathers view" was that the U.S. Senate needed well-qualified individuals and that the more long-serving and experienced they were, the better.

It should also be mentioned that most of the Founding Fathers devoted most of their life to public service and would considered a "career politicians" by Mr. Johnson's standards.  In fact, in the history of the United States, you would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of people serving in the U.S. Senate that were not "career politicians."


September 13, 2010 - 10:35am