On Representation and Leadership in Congress

>> Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Yesterday's failure to pass the bail out legislation should be considered a text book case study in the competing philosophies of Republican government. We saw in stark contrast the difference in the constituency service model and independent leadership model of government. The law makers who had to go home and face the voters voted overwhelmingly against the bill while safe law makers voted for it. Why? To answer that we need to look at what congress people think their job is.

There is a constant tug of war in congress members minds between acting on their own judgment about an issue and in responding to the demands of the constituency. Take the example of the bailout, the safe members who voted or the bill were not exempt from their constituents demands for a no vote. If reports are to be believed they were being hit at a no to yes ration of 30-1. In this case they ignored their constituents for what they believed was the good of the country. They utilized their own judgment about what was best based on their own knowledge of the situation and the consequences of action. What they did was exercise leadership when they must know that they will take a major hit from this. Many people believe that this is why we elect representatives to go and make the hard calls.

On the opposite side we have the nay voters from unsafe districts. These people totally relied on the demands of the voters back home. They simply performed the role of the mouthpiece. This is a fully recognized idea of how a representative should act. We petition leaders so that we may influence the decision. Would we do this if we were not supposed to have input? The question is whether these people have gone to far. Why elect them personally if all we need is a stand-in? We could vote over the internet on every bill and the representative would simply push the button yea or nay.

The question arises whether they were actually following their constituents out of an ideological belief that that is the right thing or out of a political cowardice that they would be voted out of office. If they really believed that this was the right thing to do and voted no to keep their jobs that is a problem in my mind. If you believe your job is to lead and make decisions for the people except when that might hurt you politically i cant respect that.

If you believe that we elect our congress people to lead and make decisions then sometimes they have a duty to do that. If that decision leads them to get voted out, fine. If they have a principle and they believe they were elected to follow those principles they should sacrifice their career for what is best for the country. others have sacrificed more than simply a job. i have a hard time believing that a representative who votes for an issue with the ability to defend why his vote was best for the country will get thrown out of office. Even if they do they should have no regrets.

What is lacking in the discussion of the bail out is that what should be done is what is best for the country, regardless of politics. If that bill that was put up was not the best bill for the country then it had no business being voted on. No one thought the bill that went before the congress was the best possible bill. The people understood this. The best bill needs to go up in a crisis and if republican members want to take a principled stand against it i think that is their right. I think if there was a bill that everyone actually thought would work and was not a cobbled together political band aid the american people would get behind it. it might not be perfect but good should be a worthy adjective. Then you would have no trouble with those people afraid of using their judgment.

I could be wrong though. There is always the idea that we elect members to make trivial regular decisions we cant be bothered with but that the important stuff should be left to the people. That might work. The problem i see with that is that people dont usually understand the important stuff any better than the trivial stuff. We should not just trust them or cede total decision making to legislators. Calls keep them honest and make sure that only on the most truly principled issues will they cross the voters lest they risk their jobs.

It is an unresolved question what is the job of a legislator, listen and follow the people or use your own judgment? Legislators like to have it both ways by building support for an issue but sometimes you have to make the call about what is best for the country without the benefit of popular support.


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