The Corner

James Madison: Still Causing Friction

According to Politico, there is friction between Speaker Pelosi and President Obama because she thinks he is not moving leftward fast enough. Meanwhile, she also has a difficult relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This intraparty tension stems not just from these three persons, but from a fourth:  James Madison.

As he explained in Federalist 51, the Framers intended the separation of powers to create political friction: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” Bicameralism serves the same purpose: to render the two houses “as little connected with each other as the nature of their common functions and their common dependence on the society will admit.” Accordingly, presidents have often butted heads with House speakers of their own party, who in turn have clashed with their Senate counterparts.

As William F. Connelly Jr. explains in a forthcoming book on Madison’s enduring influence, the Framers did not create friction simply for its own sake. Friction creates light as well as heat: That is, disagreement gives rise to debate and deliberation.  If the Obama-Pelosi-Reid conflict slows things down a bit, that’s all to the good.  Lawmakers may actually get a chance to deliberate on the merits of the president’s program.  A few of them may even read the bills.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. With James Ceaser and Andrew Busch, he is co-author of Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics.


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