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If We Elect Them, Do They Have to Listen to Us?

By Caroline Baum
November 07, 2012 6:30 PM EST
Illustration by Michael Willis
Illustration by Michael Willis

Lyman Hall, the Georgia delegate to the Second Continental Congress, is trying to resolve his dilemma. His constituents are opposed to independence from Great Britain, which is why he initially voted “no.” Then Hall recalls something Irish philosopher Edmund Burke once said, “that a representative owes the people not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.” He changes Georgia’s vote for independence to “yes.” The rest is history.

At least that’s how Hall’s decision is portrayed in the musical “1776.” The Burke quote isn’t quite right, but Lyman’s theatrical rephrasing captures the essence.

I was thinking about this issue recently: Whether a representative is beholden to those who elect him. Does representing one’s district mean doing what voters want? Or does it mean using one’s judgment to act in what one perceives to be the voters’ best interest?

This is what political scientists call “a trustee versus delegate problem,” said Michele Swers, a professor of political science at Georgetown University in Washington. A trustee listens to his constituents, but when it comes to making a decision, he formulates his own conclusions, which is what Hall did in 1776. The 2008 bank bailout, or Troubled Asset Relief Program, is an example of legislators acting as trustees, Swers said. “It was unpopular but necessary to save the nation.”

People’s House

The U.S. system is based on a delegate model. The nation’s founders designed the House of Representatives, sometimes called the “People’s House,” as a populist institution. Article I of the Constitution provides for a two-year term, proportional representation and direct election of representatives (senators were indirectly elected by state legislatures until the 17th Amendment to the Constitution in 1913).

We, the people, get to throw them out every two years if we’re dissatisfied. Doesn’t that imply they have to listen to us?

Apparently not. The U.S. system may have been based on a delegate model, but nowadays representatives answer to a higher power. “They are less likely to listen to constituents and more likely to act as a national party team,” said Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.

Independent voting by party members peaked in the 1970s, Burden said, shortly after the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the transformation of the south to a Republican stronghold. The parties became increasingly polarized. Today the U.S. has “a party-government model that looks like the British Parliament,” he said.

Democratic and Republican representatives elected sequentially from the same district, as well as senators of both parties representing the same state, have “wildly different voting records,” Burden said, suggesting they aren’t catering to their constituent base.

Should we be upset? We can always vote for the challenger, and two years isn’t very long to wait.

It turns out that when voters are considering which candidate to support, they “care much, much more about someone who represents their policy views as opposed to policy outcomes,” said Philip Edward Jones, a political science professor at the University of Delaware in Newark. Jones’ research supports the idea that voters punish incumbents for the way they vote, not for the way things turn out.

Backward Evolution

For example, a consistent vote for tax cuts may be more persuasive than the perceived economic outcome. Which makes sense even to someone not steeped in political theory. None of us can control outcomes in our own lives, no less in the economy at large. What we can control is our inputs, what we do, which Jones’s research suggests is what matters to voters. And here I thought it was all about money!

It surprised me to learn from both Burden and Jones that money doesn’t buy votes to the extent that it can’t turn a “nay” into a “yea.” Does it buy access? You bet. There’s nothing like attending a fund-raiser in the district if you want your congressman to take your call the next time you ring.

What about influence? Money “mobilizes supporters,” Burden said, and “buys behind-the-scenes participation,” according to Jones.

Simply put, members of Congress have only so much time, and nothing focuses the mind like a hefty campaign contribution. (Imagine how much more time they would have to do the people’s business if representatives spent fewer hours in their districts campaigning for re-election.)

It’s been more than 200 years since Lyman had his epiphany on what it means to be a representative. In that time, the U.S. has evolved from a delegate model to a trustee relationship between representative and constituent to a party-centric model, which is where we are today. That doesn’t sound like progress.

“There’s one upside,” Burden said: “You know who’s responsible for what’s happening.”

The 2008 election put the Democrats in control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. The voters knew whom to blame when the 2010 mid-term rolled around.

What does it say about the 2012 election that Americans voted for a status-quo Congress? Maybe it means that with nothing accomplished there was no one to blame. Let’s hope lawmakers don’t internalize that message.

(Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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Today’s highlights: Visit the Ticker for election commentary, including Mary Duenwald on the prospects of a carbon tax, James Greiff on restoring Wall Street-White House ties and Zara Kessler on Mitt Romney’s 49 percent problem.

Plus, the editors on how President Barack Obama can avoid the fiscal cliff and start on his global to-do list; Ezra Klein on the opening for filibuster reform; W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm on the California business that might come to Texas; Odd Arne Westad on China’s more nationalistic leadership.

To contact the writer of this article: Caroline Baum in New York at cabaum@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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