The New Attack on Democracy: What the Founders Knew But We’ve Forgotten

One of the foundational principles of American democracy is under attack.

When the nation’s Founders crafted the United States Constitution in 1787, they were careful to include a requirement that:

“The Senators and Representatives shall receive a compensation for their services, to be ascertained by law, and paid out of the treasury of the United States.” (Art I, Sec. 6, Clause 1).

A similar provision for compensation applies to the president:

“The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.” (Art II, Sec. 1, Clause 7).

constitutionThe Founders understood that providing compensation for the new government’s elected officers was not a trivial matter, but an essential and cutting edge principle of the new democracy that they were striving to create — and one that directly and profoundly affected the kind of people who would be willing and able to serve as representatives of the people.

They knew too that no other nation on earth insisted on compensation for its elected officials.

In England, members of parliament as a rule served without pay.  In colonial America, candidates for public office usually followed the practice of their English counterparts and promised to serve without compensation.  In the states themselves, only Pennsylvania provided for “wages” from the “state treasury” to “all lawmakers.”

The Founders knew that this English aristocratic practice of not paying public officers created an enormous disadvantage for less wealthy candidates who could not afford to serve without receiving an adequate income for their efforts.

The Founders did not want public service to be a genteel avocation reserved for men of independent wealth, as it was in England, but wanted instead to create a system in which – as James Madison said – public office would be open to “those who have the most merit and least wealth.”

Fueled by the rhetoric of anti-government and anti-egalitarian demagogues (mostly in or allied with the Republican Party), this foundational and deeply American egalitarian principle is now under attack in this country – especially in California, where voters are responding to the state’s budget crisis by cutting the salaries of legislators and city officials, and where our billionaire governor constantly rails against legislative salaries and supports a 10 percent pay cut in legislative compensation.

But as the Founders knew – and we clearly have forgotten – adequate compensation for public officials is an essential element of a democratic government.

Cutting the salaries of public officials will mean that only the rich will able to serve – and when only the rich can serve, we will have the opposite of the government that Madison envisioned – one in which our representative have “the most wealth and the least merit.”

The Founders would not be pleased that the people are now so willingly – even eagerly – abandoning one of the fundamental principles of the American democracy that they fought to create.

Michael D. Fox

Michael received a B.A. degree in philosophy and literature, magna cum laude, from Queens College, and a J.D. with honors from the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he was an editor of the Wisconsin Law Review and a member of the Order of the Coif. He also received an M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine. Following law school, Michael served as law clerk to the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, then as an appellate attorney with the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, D.C., and as a national staff counsel for the United Steelworkers Union. He has successfully briefed and argued numerous cases before the federal and state appellate courts. He has also taught communications, speech, acting, and dramatic literature at the University of California, Irvine, Long Beach City College, and the Laguna College of Art and Design. Among his publications are books and articles on topics ranging from economics, real estate and labor relations to Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, and contemporary drama. As a theatre director, Michael has staged more than 50 plays. He is the founder and Artistic Director of Moving Target Theatre, which produces socially conscious plays in cooperation with activist organizations and presents them directly in the community. He is also a member of the Executive Board of the Democratic Party of California, president of The Duck Club Democrats, and has received an AFL-CIO Award for Meritorious Service for Commitment to Human Rights. Michael is married and has one son, one dog, two cats and five guitars. 

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  5 comments for “The New Attack on Democracy: What the Founders Knew But We’ve Forgotten

  1. July 2, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    My wife, Melissa Fox, is a candidate for the California Assembly for the 70th Assembly District.

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=90628476440&ref=ts

  2. Northcountystorm
    July 3, 2009 at 1:15 am

    The Founding Fathers might have ordered compensation for the President and Congress but its a stretch to use that reasoning to suggest that California’s legislators should not have to see their income reduced in these tough economic times. Our legislators receive the highest pay in the country when their per diem and car allowances are included. And you’d be hard pressed to find many who think that we get full value for that investment. In fairness, many of the problems are structual(2/3 budget requirement)but with state employees taking in effect a 15% pay cut with the 3 furlough days a month, why should state legislators be exempt from the belt tightening? Especially when they can’t do the basic thing required of them–pass a budget? And I’m sorry, but sending Senators “home” for the weekend when the budget problem is not fixed and thousands of businesses are going to have to be holding these IOU’s, is not a move that will move legislative approval ratings up from their record low.

    We have a system for regulating state legislative pay—a commission. It has bumped up legislative pay for some time. Now when other state employees are being told to reduce their pay, the Commission is cutting the pay back. Not for these folks mind you, but for the next bunch. I think Lou Correa did the right thing in voluntarily agreeing to a 10% pay cut. Unlike Abel Maldanado who also agreed to a big cut, Correa is not wealthy and he does feel the pain. Steinberg did the right thing by asking the rest of the Senate to agree to a voluntary 5% cut. All but two Senators agreed. Even with a 10% pay cut, I’m sure there would be no shortage of non-wealthy individuals flocking to run for one of the highest paid legislative offices in the land.

    With public employees being laid off or having their wages reduced, the legislators need to demonstrate some leadership by example. This is not an attack on democracy but an exercise in leadership and I think the Founding Fathers would have been just fine with what the Pay Commission has done and what the State Senate has done.

  3. July 3, 2009 at 3:00 am

    Northcounty:

    I’m sure you don’t believe that cutting legislative salaries will move the budget an iota toward resolution.

    No one thinks that it would.

    Rather, cutting legislative salaries would be a purely symbolic act – and as symbolism it reinforces the false idea that the legislators (or rather the Democrats in the legislature) are to blame for the budget crisis.

    As a matter of fact – as I’m sure you know – the legislature has passed a budget – more than once.

    The problem – and the only reason that we do not have a budget right now — is that our Republican Governor insists on vetoing the budgets that the legislature passes.

    Anti-government forces — a new breed of Tories with a deep distrust of representative government — have captured the California Republican Party.

    And they are only too happy to see chaos and catastrophe in Sacramento.

    Especially when the blame can be placed on the legislature and, by extension, on representative government in general.

    Nor do I buy your concern for the layoffs imposed on our state’s government employees, who our California Tories would like to see not merely furloughed but entirely and permanently eliminated.

    The leadership by example that the legislature should show is to stick to its democratic principles and Democratic values, and refuse to give in to the Governor’s attempt to implement an agenda by blackmail that he could not get passed by the people’s representatives and that the voters have directly and decisively rejected when he presented it to them in the form of his numerous special election propositions.

    The Founders — who staked their lives and liberty to secure for us a heritage of representative government — would have been appalled by the Governor and the new Tories of the California Republican Party masquerading as protectors of the people.

  4. Northcountystorm
    July 4, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    You can blame the Governor all you want but your evidence simply doesn’t support your hyperbolic claim that” one of the foundational principles of American democracy is under attack.”

    As you note, Article 2 Section 1 Clause 7 of the US Constitution says that compensation for Congress shall not be increased or decreased during that members term. In California, the constitution PROHIBITS the reduction of elected state officials saleries during their terms of office and the only restriction on raising state legislators salaries during their term of office is the General Fund ends the year with a defecit.

    As I mentioned and you ignored, our Constitution provides for a Citizen Commission to decide on compensation for state elected officials. They have criteria to determine salary adjustments. No decrease can occur during the term of a member.

    It a fair process. The cuts that they are recommending are not during the term of office of any member. its consistent with the language the Founding fathers gave us. And a cut in pay, after being the best paid legislators in the country, is certainly not out of the question during these tough financial times when officials in other public and private sector positions are taking significant cuts to their salaries.

    You know I really could care less that you don’t “buy” my concern for the layoffs imposed on state and local governments. I care about those people and if you knew something about leadership you’d understand that leaders lead by example. If times are tough, they share the toughness. If you think what Senator Steinberg and all but two Senators did was a threat to the foundational principles of our Country, why not post a public letter to them saying just that. Why not urge them to increase their pay? or better yet, why not let tell the folks who are losing their jobs or seeing significant reductions in pay due to furloughs or salary adjustments, go ahead and eat cake.

    If you want to write yet another attack piece on the Governor and the Republicans for their budget positions, go ahead. They bear alot(but not all) of the blame for this mess. But throwing the Constitution into the mix makes me think Charleston Heston and the Ten Commandmants being violated is your next post.

  5. July 4, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    NorthC:

    As I have explained, I believe that cutting legislative salaries violates the spirit of the U.S. Constitution.

    As I’ve also said, cutting legislative salaries would be a purely symbolic act and as such would send the wrong message — that the legislature is responsible for the budget crisis, when in fact it is the Republican governor and the new Tory Republican minority who are solely to blame for the budget mess.

    I apologize for calling into question your concern for state and local employees slated to be axed under the Republican budget plan. If you write a letter to the governor and the Republican leadership protesting these layoff and calling on the governor to stop vetoing the budget plans passed by the legislative majority, please feel free to post it here.

    (As for Charlton Heston and the Ten Commandments, I will say only that that I am a big fan of both, and refuse to be drawn any further into dramaturgical or theological debates).

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