Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

How Congress spent its summer: 2011 vs. 1787

September 7, 2011 by Holly Munson


Signing the Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Members of Congress are back at work today on Capitol Hill after a monthlong recess (read: vacation!) that concluded a sizzling summer showdown over the national debt. Here at the National Constitution Center, we couldn’t help but draw a few comparisons between this summer’s debt debates and another notable summer 224 years ago.

THE FINAL PRODUCTThe most recent Congressional session yielded a debt deal that is disapproved of by 52 percent of Americans (according to this CNN/ORC poll).The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia produced the widely debated but still-going-strong founding document of the United States of America.
HIGH STAKESWithout a debt ceiling bill, we’d risk defaulting on government debts. Yikes.Without the Constitution, we’d be stuck with the Articles of Confederation. Bigger yikes.
POWER PLAYERSIn January of this year, the “Gang of Six,” a group of three Republicans and three Democrats in the Senate, began discussing a deficit deal.A handful of important delegates from Pennsylvania and Virginia had arrived in Philadelphia a week early. The delegates who favored a strong national government, particularly James Madison, used this time before the Convention officially convened to gather support for their ideas.
ULTIMATUMSHouse Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders repeatedly proclaimed they wouldn’t approve a budget that included tax increases.Small-state delegates insisted they'd accept a central government only if it included equal representation for each state, regardless of population. Slave-state delegates insisted they'd accept a central government only if it protected the institution of slavery.
FROM LEFT FIELDThe debate was replete with out-there comments, including such greats as, “This deal is a sugar-coated Satan sandwich” (Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-MO) and “Let’s pass a bill to cover the moon with yogurt” (Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI). (For more, check out this playful quiz by the Washington Post.)One notable person infused the discussions with a dose of eccentricity: Benjamin Franklin. The 81-year-old sage occasionally chimed in with less-than-relevant ideas, such as when he proposed a complicated system for determining representation and taxation. The delegates listened politely out of respect, but didn’t pursue the idea.
CURVEBALLSArizona’s Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), still in recovery from the Jan. 8 shooting in Tuscon, arrived unexpectedly on the House floor to vote on the debt ceiling bill. Although Giffords’ vote wasn’t essential to the passing of the bill, her presence certainly elevated the mood in the chamber.When a vote was held on a compromise that gave each state a single vote in the Senate, one delegate, Daniel of St. Thomas Jenifer of Maryland, was noticeably absent, and his absence swung the vote in favor of the small states. Historian Richard Beeman speculates that Jenifer “may have concluded that his temporary absence would help ease the way toward compromise and thus keep the Convention alive.”
RUNNING OUT OF STEAMThe drawn-out debate prompted many Americans to be disillusioned about the work of Congress. A CNN/ORC poll revealed that three out of four Americans believe elected officials acted like “spoiled children” in this summer’s debates.The drawn-out debate in the hot, stuffy Pennsylvania State House prompted growing irritation and impatience toward the end of the summer. At least one delegate allowed his mind to wander: Pierce Butler of South Carolina idly sketched caricatures of several other delegates and filled his page of “notes” with aimless strokes and swirls.
ANYONE'S GAMEThe debt deal raises the debt ceiling only through the end of 2012; in the meantime, a congressional “supercommittee” will be tasked with coming up with further fiscal reforms.The Constitution includes provisions for making amendments. In the process of ratifying the document, several state conventions pushed for changes, resulting in the addition of ten amendments, now called the Bill of Rights. 

Sources:, "Debt ceiling: Timeline of deal's development" (Aug. 2, 2011); Richard R. Beeman, Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (2009); David O. Stewart, The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution (2007).

Holly Munson is a Public Programs Experience Guide at the National Constitution Center. Join the National Constitution Center on Sept. 16 to celebrate the accomplishments of the summer of 1787. Click here for more information.

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