House Of Cards = Bad Civics Lesson

Does anyone out there suffer from the same problem I do, to wit, a compulsion to watch House of Cards, followed by a feeling of revulsion after watching each episode?  But let’s leave the psychoanalysis for another day . . . .

Right now I want to talk about something that happened during episode 3 of season 2.  [Spoiler Alert: Stop here if you don't want to know what happened.]  Recall that Frank Underwood was working hard to pass entitlement reform and needed the support of Representative Curtis Haas, a Republican and, more importantly, the voice of the Tea Party in the House.  To make the deal work, Frank promised Haas that the entitlement reform bill would include language preventing a subsequent Congress from amending, overturning or repealing the legislation for 15 years.  Haas accepted that proposal.

At which point I cringed and then began to scream at the TV, much to the amusement of my wife and two sons, who happened to be in the room at the time.

Why did I react so negatively?  Because it has been settled law for many centuries that one legislature cannot bind the legislative authority of its successors.  As the famous English jurist, William Blackstone, wrote nearly 250 years ago:

Acts of parliament derogatory from the power of subsequent parliaments bind not. . . . Because the legislature, being in truth the sovereign power, is always of equal, always of absolute authority: it acknowledges no superior upon earth, which the prior legislature must have been, if it’s [sic] ordinances could bind the present parliament.

1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England 90 (1765) (cited in U.S. v. Winstar Corp., 518 U.S. 839 (1996)).  (See here, here and here for some other sources discussing this issue.)

So, watch House of Cards if, like me, you must.  But it ain’t a reliable source of civics lessons.


2 Comments on “House Of Cards = Bad Civics Lesson”

  1. Clark Howell says:

    That answers a question I’ve HAD about our legislation and laws, e.g., one body binding another. Problem is, no matter HOW good a law you craft, knucklheads can come along 5 years later and undo the whole thing…..

  2. Maura Casey says:

    OMG. I would have been screaming even louder. The person who wrote the script must have had a degree in art history.


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