A Long History of Super Committees: The Connecticut Compromise

I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from the blog the past few weeks.  I had to make some editorial revisions to my dissertation, pack everything, move, unpack and prepare my syllabi for the upcoming semester.  But I’m gainfully employed and finally done with the Ph.D., so I got that going for me, which is nice…
I’ll have more to say about the so-called “super committee” in the next week or so.  The topic touches on my dissertation, actually, which concerns bicameral bargaining and conference committees.  I just wanted to take a few minutes to identify the “original” super committee.

In July of 1787, the Constitutional convention was deadlocked over the issue of apportionment.  Members from smaller states favored the “New Jersey plan,” which called for a unicameral legislature with each state equally represented, while members from larger states favored the “Virginia plan,” which called for a bicameral legislature with seats in both chambers allotted according to state population.  Nothing less than the Convention itself was at stake, which had been deadlocked for weeks (the “default of the Constitution” if you will).  How, you ask, did the Framers reach a compromise on this thorny issue?  They formed a “grand committee,” of course, tasked with writing a plan that would satisfy competing sides.  Jack Rakove (2004, 14) has a nice paragraph about this grand committee in Zelizer’s The American Congress:

This stalemate led to the appointment of a “grand committee” of one delegate from each state to seek a compromise…Madison and Wilson objected that a committee could only replicate the basic divisions in the larger body, and on the whole, the committee’s deliberations proved them right.  Yet the members, once assembled, felt they had to do something.  Prodded by the great sage Benjamin Franklin, they adopted a report giving each state an equal vote in the upper house, apportioning seats in the lower house among the states by population, and requiring appropriation bills to be introduced in the lower house and not subject to amendment in the senate–seemingly a concession to the populous states.

There is a very interesting puzzle here (in both Rakove’s take on the operation of the “grand committee” and the task of our modern “super committee”).  In particular: Why do we think that a committee composed of members drawn from two hyper-partisan chambers, in an era of strong parties where (presumably) the party leaders exercise significant control over who gets selected to the super committee, would be able to facilitate compromise and concession?  In simple terms: Why, exactly,  is compromise and “good” policy more likely in a super committee as compared to the normal policy process?  What makes them so super?

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Topics: Legislative Procedure
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