Back in the Seventies, Bill Wilson and I discussed politics on television with Representative Roger Raymond Fischer, the mild-mannered Republican who served 11 terms as the state representative for Washington, Pennsylvania.
Since then he's become a minister, the Rev. Dr. Fischer. But as a legislator he occasionally came to our Washington Channels studio to answer viewer questions on Harrisburg Report. At various times Bill or I hosted the program, and we each had questions of our own.
Bill felt disenfranchised. When the election comes around, Ill vote for you, of course, he told Fischer (Im paraphrasing). But youre running unopposed. Im throwing my vote away, because youll be re-elected anyway without my help. What I really want to do is cast a vote against that idiot representative from Philadelphia. But I cant, because he doesnt live in my district. Isnt there some way I could vote him out?
For my part, I felt cheated when Fischer pledged to vote however his constituents wanted. Didnt he have a mind of his own? Didnt we elect him to take that mind to the capital and use it to reason out solutions to Pennsylvanias problems? Apparently not. We must have elected a parrot, not a thinker.
My Basic Query
In a republic like ours, we elect prominent local leaders to be our voice in the state and national legislatures.
After we have democratically selected the best and brightest among us, after we have duly sent them off to the capital to represent us, how should they legislate?
Should they do what they think is right, or should they do what we think is right?
Representative A carefully studies all the facts that are available to him as a lawmaker. He then uses his best judgment to support legislation he reasons will most benefit the entire state or nation.
Representative B, on the other hand, wants to keep his job. Therefore he consults opinion polls. Having discovered the prevailing views of his constituents, he then substitutes their ill-informed judgment for his own. By ignoring his own conscience in favor of the electorates desires, he ensures his re-election.
Theres a third possibility. Representative C wants his party to control the legislature. To that end, he disregards both what he thinks and what the voters think. Instead, he notes what the opposition party thinks, and then he declares them evil and votes against everything they suggest. If any of their initiatives were to actually accomplish something, the opposition party might gain more seats. Its not important for the state or nation to succeed; whats important is for the other party to fail.
I always thought that our elected leaders ought to be Type A statesmen. They should be intelligent leaders who vote their own consciences, even if the electorate is of a different opinion. Ideally, at the next election, they can convince the voters of the wisdom of their actions. If not, the voters can elect someone else.
Today, unfortunately, voters tend to elect candidates who reflect their own parochial interests. They choose Type B demagogues or Type C party hacks. These are followers, not leaders, whose previously announced judgments on the issues their pre-judices match the voters own.
Remember My Back Yard
Everyone seems to have a poor opinion of Congress. But their own Congressman is the exception, because he brings home the pork. Ideally, he makes sure his district gets more than its fair share of taxpayer funds.
To be successful, a legislator must remind the people what hes done for them. In 2009, the average Congressman sent 70,000 free messages to residents of his district, as the House of Representatives spent more than $45 million on constituent communications via the franking privilege.
He must also employ a large staff at taxpayer expense to provide constituent services. For example, if his constituents are having trouble tapping the treasury for their own special needs, they should be able to visit his district office and beg for the legislator to put in a good word for them.
Thats what has become important in elections: not what principles will you use to reach your decisions, but what special favors can you do for my neighbors and me?