James Madison and Sunshine Week

James Madison and Sunshine Week

James Madison’s birthday (March 16th) falls in Sunshine Week (March 15-21). These two events are related in a negative sort of a way.

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James Madison’s birthday (March 16th) falls in Sunshine Week (March 15-21). These two events are related in a negative sort of a way.

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James Madison was well-intentioned in his design for our government. He believed that, by enumerating the powers granted to the government in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, government would remain limited. The first 9 amendments to the Constitution all concern what the government may NOT do. He separated governmental powers into a Legislative, Executive and Judicial branch in order to create checks and balances against expansion of the government’s power. Madison understood that “all men having power ought to be mistrusted”, and, alas, this insight proved to be more powerful than the limitations written into the constitution. 

Madison also understood that there is always a need for transparency and clarity in government. He said that “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.”

Unfortunately, Madison's fears came true: our laws and regulations are so voluminous we can’t read them, and so incoherent we can’t fully understand them. 

Sunshine Week is another well-intentioned effort. It is a national initiative spearheaded by the American Society of News Editors to foster open government and eliminate excessive secrecy in government. There is information here and a free toolkit here to help citizens conduct their own transparency-in-government campaigns.

The real problem, however, is that Madison’s Constitution has been perverted. Career politicians get elected by accepting campaign funds from big money special interests – unions, big business, and agenda coalitions like the Sierra Club. Once elected, the politicians let these same special interests draft legislation, and their bloated staffs and high-paid lobbyists push the legislation through. The laws become incoherent as all the special interests pile on with their own customized subsidies and protections. Then, the thousands of pages of incomprehensible regulations follow.

The solution is to change the structure of the legislature. In the Neighborhood Legislature, local citizens, each representing just a few thousand households, will change the way we create legislation. Representatives will know their constituents because their constituents will be their neighbors and they will sympathize with their constituents because they share their interests. Above all, representatives will finally listen to their constituents and make sure that any legislation that is drafted (including the repeal of current laws) is brief, clear and to the point. They will make the draft visible to their local constituents, and gather their opinions before the final up-and-down vote on whether to pass the new law or not.

James Madison will stop turning in his grave and Sunshine Week will become an amusing relic of the bygone age of opaque government practices. Happy Birthday, James!

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