Federalist No. 51: Operation to Limit the Authority of the Central Government



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I33004 Seme Park

Professor Jaechun Kim

GISA 220: American Politics and American Foreign Policy


Federalist No. 51: Operation to Limit the Authority of the Central Government

The “Federalist Papers” are a series of 85 articles and essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay promoting in hopes to influence the vote in favour of ratifying the U.S Constitution. Amongst these articles the “Federalist No. 51” was written by James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, who is also hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” and one of the key Founding Fathers of the United States.



The “Federalist No. 51” addresses appropriate separation of powers and checks and balances within the national government by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places1. Each department should have a will of its own and, simultaneously, administer each other through constitutional means. Most importantly, ambition must be made to counteract ambition…it may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.2 Hence, Madison’s proposal was adopted into Constitution as the U.S government is separated into the legislative, executive and judicial branches with respective constituencies. Contrary to encroachment of governmental power, checks and balance is applied and ensured to avoid any predominant branch. No principle of politics was more widely shared at the time of the 1787 Founding than the principle that power must be used to balance power.3 The French political theorist Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu believed that this balance was indispensable defence against tyranny.4 For example, under the Constitution, the president can veto a legislation passed by the Congress. However, the Congress can override that veto with a two-third vote. In other words, the judicial branch guards against the constitutionality of all laws introduced either by the legislative or the executive branch. The power to enact a law does not enact in one sole branch.
The application of Madison’s proposal is still intact with the American politics till today. The principles of separation of power and checks and balances still live on.

Health policy debates are replete with discussions of federalism, most often when advocates of reform put their hopes in states.5 Recently, controversies arouse throughout the American public and the bicameral government with regards to the present health care reform. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known was the “Obama Care” was signed into law to reform the health care industry by President Obama on the 23rd of March 2010 and upheld by the Supreme Court on the 28th of June 2012.6 The goal of this act is to give more Americans access to affordable, quality health insurance, and to reduce the growth in health care spending in the U.S. The act doesn’t regulate individual citizen’s health care but expands the affordability, quality, and availability of private and public health insurance through consumer protections, regulations, subsidies, taxes, insurance exchanges, and other reforms. Efforts to oppose and repeal the legislation have drawn support from prominent conservative advocacy groups, Congressional and many state Republicans, certain small business organizations, and the Tea Party movement who argued that the law will lead to disruption of existing health plans, increased costs from new insurance standards, and that it will increase the deficit. Furthermore, there are opponents against the idea of universal healthcare as they perceive insurance as similar to other commodities to which people are not mandatorily entitled. Thus, the opponents turned to the federal courts to challenge the constitutionality of the legislation. For example, in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, decided on June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled on a 5–4 vote that the individual mandate is constitutional under Congress's taxation powers, although the law could not have been upheld under an argument based on the regulatory power of Congress under the Commerce Clause.7 Strong partisan disagreement in Congress has prevented adjustments to the Act's provisions. Nonetheless, a proposed repeal of a tax on medical devices, has received bipartisan support. Republicans attempted to defund its implementation. In Republican Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Marco Rubio, refused to fund the federal government unless accompanied with a delay in implementation of the Act8, after the President unilaterally pushed back the employer mandate by one year, which critics claim it was “unconstitutional”. Moreover, the House of Representatives passed three versions of a bill and simultaneously submitting various versions which would repeal or delay the Act, with the last version delaying enforcement of the “individual mandate”. These bills were unable to muster enough votes in the Democrat-held Senate, with Democratic leadership stating the Senate would only pass a "clean" funding bill without any restrictions on the Act.9 After the Congress failed to pass a continuing funding resolution by midnight on October 1, a government shutdown ensued. Conservative groups such as Heritage Action provided lobbying support for the linkage between the Act and the government shutdown.10 Senate Republicans threatened to block appointments to relevant agencies, such as the Independent Payment Advisory Board and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.11

Madison’s intention was to avoid the “tyranny of majority”. The Conservative Republicans of the House of Representatives adopted the intricate system of checks and balances to stand in the way of effective implementation. Thus, the situation incorporates the need for compromise amongst the separation of power. Issues related to health care are basic right that ought to be provided to citizens and a commodity where wealthier citizens can purchase more or better facilitated insurance. Although the current situation of the health care reform act seems to be in a stale mate, as predetermined by James Madison and the Founding Fathers, Americans should return to bargaining, compromising and further discussion. In addition, the world has witness an increasing role in federal government of the United States. Perhaps, under the circumstances, the federal government should lead present and future financing of health care coverage, since it would require major changes in American intergovernmental relations to make innovative state health care financing sustainable outside a strong federal framework.


In conclusion, the principle of separation of power and the system of checks and balances placed in the U.S Constitution is one of its most unique characteristics. Most of the checks built into the system are not specific as the ones relating to making laws and declaring war, but serve to generally delineate the lines of authority between the three branches. However, the judicial branch is the least described in the U.S. Constitution. To elaborate, members of the judicial branch are appointed by the executive branch, with the approval of the legislative branch, can make final and absolute rulings on the actions of either the legislative or executive branch, and can only be removed from office by conviction of the legislative branch. Since the legislative branch is the most powerful branch in a republic, it would most likely be the two other branches asking for an appeal.

In addition, the people of the United States have wide spectrum of interest with a variety of opinions where convergence to one instant agreement is impossible. Competing interests will always serve to check one another's power because they jealously guard their own, no matter the cost. Likewise, it would be inconceivable for an executive to amass such a huge standing army as to become a military dictator, since it is “checked” by the legislative branch. All of the checks placed on the government by the U.S Constitution are improvements over the Articles of Confederation along with notable events such as the 1786 Annapolis Convention and the Great Compromise (also known as the Connecticut Compromise). Hypothetically, if the Confederation Congress was a stronger body, it could have easily amassed the executive, judicial and legislative powers into its own hands with no check on its authority but the resistance of the states. The Constitution not only provides a balance between the branches of the central government, but aims to harmonize the state and federal systems of government and provides a constant opportunity for the American citizens to review the authority of the government through re-election which devises a double protection.



1 Madison, James, Federalist No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Department, New York Packet, February 8, 1788, The Library of Congress, http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_51.html.

2 Madison, James, Federalist No. 51: The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Department, New York Packet, February 8, 1788, The Library of Congress, http://thomas.loc.gov/home/histdox/fed_51.html.

3 Lowi, Theodore J., et al, American Government: Power and Purpose, 8th edition, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, p.50.

4 Lowi, Theodore J., et al, American Government: Power and Purpose, 8th edition, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, p.50.

5 Chapinski, David M., Rhetorical Federalism: Governing, Institution, Public Investment and Perils of Health Care Federalism, The Alternative Press, August 17, 2013, http://thealternativepress.com /articles/rhetorical-federalism-governing-institutions-pl.

6 Obama Care Facts: Dispelling the Myths, http://obamacarefacts.com/obamacare-facts.php

7 Liptak, Adam, Supreme Court Upholds Health Care Law, 5-4, In Victory for Obama, New York Times, June 28, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/29/us/supreme-court-lets-health-law-largely-stand.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

8 Pinkowski, Jack, Checks and Balances: The Government Shutdown in Perspective, The Huffington Post, October 10, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jack-pinkowski/checks-and-balances-the-g_b_4080850.html

9 Montgomery, Lori and Kane, Paul, Senate rejects House Amendments to Spending Bills as Shutdown Looms, Washington Post, September 30, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics /washington-braces-for-the-first-shutdown-of-the-national-government-in-17years/2013/09/30/977 ebca2-29bd-11e3-97a3-ff2758228523_story.html

10 Miller, Zeke J., Hidden Hand: How Heritage Action Drove DC to Shut Down, Time, September 30, 2013,http://swampland.time.com/2013/09/30/hidden-hand-how-heritage-action-drove-dc-to-shut- down/

11 Miller, Zeke J., Hidden Hand: How Heritage Action Drove DC to Shut Down, Time, September 30, 2013,http://swampland.time.com/2013/09/30/hidden-hand-how-heritage-action-drove-dc-to-shut- down/



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