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On Representative Democracy
Written May 11, 2010


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, I’ll vote for you, of course,” he told Fischer (I’m paraphrasing).  “But you’re running unopposed.  I’m throwing my vote away, because you’ll 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 can’t, because he doesn’t live in my district.  Isn’t there some way I could vote him out?”

For my part, I felt cheated when Fischer pledged to vote however his constituents wanted.  Didn’t he have a mind of his own?  Didn’t we elect him to take that mind to the capital and use it to reason out solutions to Pennsylvania’s 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?

The Irish statesman and philosopher spoke to the electors of Bristol in November 1774.

Your representative owes you
   not his industry only
      but his judgment;

and he betrays you
   instead of serving you
if he sacrifices
   his judgment
      to your opinion.

The National Conference of State Legislatures published its "15 Tips For Being An Effective Legislator" in January 2011.  Number 7 was "Vote Your Conscience."

Your constituents sent you to the legislature, and you must represent them. But you are also a trustee of your entire nation, state or locality. Sometimes a hot issue presents nearly irreconcilable conflicts among these responsibilities, but you still have to come to a decision and vote. It may not please everybody, but remember that you are the only person you have to live with 24 hours a day, every day. The voters have already decided they approve of your basic philosophies and have chosen to place their trust in you.

On the other hand, in February 2021 Dave Ball, the chair of the apparently wrong-thinking Washington County Republican Party in Pennsylvania, criticized Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) for voting his conscience in an impeachment trial.

We did not send him there to do the right thing.  ...We sent him there to represent us.

Three Types

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 electorate’s desires, he ensures his re-election.

There’s 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.  It’s not important for the state or nation to succeed; what’s 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.

What’s right for the nation?  Reduce government spending everywhere!

What’s right for this district?  Spend more government money here!

To be successful, a legislator must remind the people what he’s 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.

That’s 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?”



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