Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

A Lack of “Ambition” and Congress’s Decline

Henry T. Edmondson III, Georgia College

The men and women of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives love their job so much they are afraid to do it; because if they do it, they may lose it. What they lack, according to Federalist Paper # 51, is “ambition.”

Federalist Paper #51 is often treated alone, especially at the secondary and freshman-sophomore level, but it is better understood in its context as the last paper in a series of five essays (#47-#51) on the “separation of powers.” That phrase does not appear anywhere in the Constitution, although it has been long recognized by the Supreme Court as one of the most important principles of the Constitution, so that if the principle of separation of powers is violated, the Constitution is violated. Papers #47-50 demonstrate that the proposed Philadelphia Constitution adheres to the principle of separation of powers, as most people at the time understood it from the French political philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755). 

In Paper #51, Publius quickly summarizes the preceding four essays, satisfied that Montesquieu would not only have liked the new Constitution, but that he really would have liked it. To be sure, the degree to which the powers in the U.S. Constitution are separated is greater than that of the English government in Montesquieu’s time, and England’s parliamentary system was his model. 

Next, Publius proceeds to explain one of the elements of the “new science of politics” that he had introduced way back in Federalist Paper #9. In Essay #51, Publius concedes that the best-designed government may not work as well in practice as in theory. Accordingly, Publius explains that the Constitution needs “auxiliary precautions”—we might say additional safeguards—and these he finds in human nature.

This supplemental principle involves the expectation that leaders will be “ambitious,” even ambitiously self-interested.  It goes something like this: if you want good, strong leadership, then you must expect those leaders to be ambitious, which means in turn they may be hard to control. Indeed, Tocqueville observed both “good” and “bad” ambition in America, and Shakespeare illustrated both species of ambition in, for example, Henry IV, Part I, Henry V, and Richard III.

Publius confesses that any system of separation of powers with its concomitant checks and balances will be “inadequate,” so that this “defect” must be met by so designing the “interior structure of government” that the three branches will keep each other in check. That is, the government must be designed so that the branches of government will keep one another in their “proper places.” 

But to do so requires more than the institutional design described in #47-51. Rather, “each department” must be motivated by a “will of its own.”   Accordingly, Publius explains that “the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.” He continues, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” That is to say, “The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” Publius then concedes that such a scheme, on the one hand, may not call for the very best character that we might expect, but on the other hand, it is a realistic view of human nature: “It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government.”

Publius recognizes some readers may be repelled by a scheme in which self-interested ambition stabilizes the government, but he responds by reminding the reader that human beings—including those in high office—are flawed. In one of the most famous lines from the Federalist Papers he asserts : “If men were angels, no government should be necessary.” He further reminds his readers that the purpose of government is to secure the noble goal of “justice,” even if the means by which justice is secured seem less than noble.  To say it differently, this competition, fueled by the ambition of men and women in high places, will prevent a heavy-handed government and protect liberty.  The branches of government must be prevented from joining forces because that collusion will lead to tyranny. If Congress, or the other two branches of government, are not ambitious in protecting  their constitutionally assigned power and prerogatives, then the system of checks and balances will not work as they should, and, Publius warns, “liberty” will be endangered.

In a word, too many Congressmen and Senators seem to lack “ambition”; or, better said, they are ambitious for the wrong thing—merely to get re-elected. For that reason, if the chief executive accrues undue power, the members of the legislative branch are at least partly to blame for not jealously guarding their own constitutionally assigned power. The problem is not so much that the president will try and gain more power—Publius expects that he will—the difficulty is that Congress allows him to usurp their own power.

Why are Senators and Congressmen so desperate to stay in office? No doubt some are driven by the best of motives. For many, however, political office is a glamorous job involving young fawning staff, requests for high-profile media appearances, and international travel where foreign leaders are eager to please. To return to one’s law or medical practice seems depressingly mundane, if it is indeed possible after years in office.  A lawyer (there are 175 in Congress) needs a practice to join, otherwise he or she must start a solo practice, a possibility too degrading to contemplate. It is unlikely a physician (17 in Congress) could catch up with the expertise required to wield advanced medical technology. A businessman (over 230) must deal with the onerous tax burdens and complex regulations that Congress itself has imposed. Democratic Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D) would have to return to her dual roles of activist by day and waitress by night; Republican Representative Jim Jordon may have to see if his old job coaching wrestling might be available.

 How far we have come!  In Federalist Paper #53, in reference to the composition of the House of Representatives, Publius has to argue against the idea, popular with some at the time, that “Where annual elections end, tyranny begins.” For some opponents of the Constitution, two years in the House of Representatives was too long!  It would be laughable were it not so tragic when barely conscious politicians arrive to work in wheelchairs. Recent pictures of ninety-year-old Dianne Feinstein’s return to the Senate after a debilitating bout with shingles are, not to put too fine a point on it, pathetic.

Is there a solution? Unless someone comes up with a better idea, the only possibility seems to be term limits for Representatives and Senators. Recent Supreme Court decisions such as West Virginia v. EPA (2022) and Sackett v. EPA (2023) have limited the authority of bureaucratic agencies to do Congress’s work for them, but this will not bring about a sea change; to the contrary, both Congress and the bureaucracy will do their best to ignore or sidestep the rulings. The only way to revolutionize the government is to limit their time in office, just as we have with the President by means of the Twenty-Second Amendment. In this case, though, the Supreme Court has made it clear that to do so would require a constitutional amendment, in the ruling Powell v. McCormick (1969) and most notably U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton (1995). It is unlikely either of those cases will be overturned. 

The idea of term limits has never disappeared from view; public interest groups are alive and well and each year one or more congressmen will introduce a term limits amendment. Many states impose term limits on their statewide legislators. The opinion polling is consistent: a majority of the public is in favor of term limits, a majority of congressmen is not. Most proposals include a “grandfather clause” so that the new rules will not apply to those in office when the amendment goes into effect; nonetheless, for such an amendment to gain traction will require a groundswell of public opinion. A utopian idea? Perhaps, but the future of the Republic may depend upon it.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Prior to Publius’ writings most political thinkers assumed ambition would always be a bad thing for politicians. Why did Madison think differently? What’s different about the way he understands ambition?
  2. Given that states control the “time, place, and manner” of elections, why couldn’t they impose term limits on federal legislators?
  3. What are the arguments against term limits for members of Congress?
  4. How, according to the author, do term limits make it more likely that Congresspersons would retain “that lean and hungry look”?

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