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Sunday, February 26, 2017

REPRESENTATION

Just in case you missed it, there seems to be a growing tendency of Republican congressional representatives to find respite and release in trips abroad during their latest recess period.  Some partisans have suggested that this may be more than a ‘tendency.’  Some say it could be a widespread Republican plan for escaping a hostile constituency in local districts.  If the experience of certain Republican congressmen facing organized opposition in current town hall settings is any indication of what awaits them at home, no wonder that an escape mechanism has been implemented. 

According to her local office staff, confirmed by her own words in a recent TV interview, my freshman congresswoman, Claudia Tenney, was in Iraq and Afghanistan to visit the troops over the congressional recess period.  Now it may be that this Trump supporter needs to learn something there that is integral to serving on the House Finance Committee, but I doubt it.  Or maybe she is learning how to deal with something that will benefit her home district – who knows?  What we do know is that no one in her local district office had much knowledge of what she would be doing in Iraq, but they were sure she was not planning to be in the district holding a Town Hall meeting!
What we learned from her TV interview was astounding.  This former lower house Assemblywoman from upstate New York had been chosen (after about 45 days in office) to be on a special congressional junket that was reportedly concerned with national security. Supposedly, her trip to visit troops would be of help in determining what was needed to bolster our national security against foreign (Islamic ISIS) invaders.  I would love to get my hands on the written report (not that there will be one) of that trip to see just how much was learned about that subject!  Unfortunately, in the midst of the interview, her words indicated that national security and federal matters took precedence over anything else, and that this has been true from our earliest history as the primary duty of the Congress.
All of which brings me around to my main concern today.  Considering the debacle of Trump’s most recent press conference, and the flight of selected Republican congressional representatives (reported by a knowledgeable source to be around 200) from facing their constituents in Town Halls in home districts, I think it is high time to talk a bit about representative democracy.  Let’s begin with some general definitions of the word “representation.”
“the action of speaking or acting on behalf of someone” (Oxford)
“the action or fact of one person standing for another so as to have the rights and obligations of the person represented”
“the fact of being represented especially in a legislative body” (Merriam Webster)
“Representation, in government, method or process of enabling the citizenry, or some of them, to participate in the shaping of legislation and governmental policy through deputies chosen by them.” (Britannica)
We also should look at definitions of the word “representative”.
  1. Representing or serving to represent; specifically acting or speaking, esp., by due authority, in the place of or on behalf of another or others;
  2. Of, characterized by, or based on, representation of the people by elected delegates
  3. A person duly authorized to act or speak for another or others (Websters New World)
Synonyms:   Commissioner, deputy, messenger, substitute, proxy, delegate, surrogate, agent, advocate
In all of these definitions and synonyms, there is the overwhelming sense that representation (and being a representative) has the distinct flavor of acting on behalf of someone else with some degree of authorization, commission or permission given to duly elected representatives.  However - and this is crucial - authorization does not appear to be a permanent action in our system.  It is voters who must be seen as deputizing, choosing, and obligating the proxies or representatives.  In our system, it is always the voters who are responsible for granting authority for building and shaping policy and legislation. 
Elections are key to naming who the representatives will be, and key to temporary commissioning of their proxies to act on their behalf, but that authority is renewable at every election.  More especially, it should be clear that such authority does not give the representative carte blanche to operate as he or she pleases.  The commission to act on behalf of voters does not include an authority to create whatever acts the representative cares to pursue.  The whole idea of representation – acting on behalf of, or in the place of others – does not include the ability to act without further consultation.  In other words, election is not equivalent to a total mandate to act as though there is no further obligation to gather information and opinions from those represented.    

So, just how did we get to this point of office-holders believing that their obligations and responsibilities include:
  • Trips to other parts of the world at taxpayers’ expense for no other reason than to enjoy themselves (and maybe to learn something) and to escape visits to their constituencies? Have you ever benefited to any degree by your congressman going on such a jaunt?  Of course not; it’s not done for your benefit. 
  • Political Party ideology getting between the representatives and those represented.  The Constitution was written before full blown parties existed; leaving us with a foundational document that sees representatives as legislators, debaters, negotiators, advisors and overseers, but not as Party loyalists who put their party’s ideology before all else.
  • The Constitution does not ever mention one of the duties that all representatives find arduous: the raising of funds to support election and re-election; most spend at least half of their time in office doing just that.
  •  A spin-off of money-raising is the now inordinate time and effort office-seekers and holders must spend with their “sponsors,” and lobbyists, granting access and quality time to them.  Elected representatives, who want to be re-elected, must pay attention to them or risk their careers in the Congress, or in whatever office they may hold.  Thus, lobbyists and favor-seeking donors, making requests for delay in legislation or for laws and regulations written a certain way, have become the shadow constituency that must be nurtured and placated at almost every turn. In her TV interview, my congresswoman made it quite plain that she spends an inordinate amount of time talking to “constituents” in her Washington office.  One has to wonder – to which constituency is she talking?
  • Election has also, for some, led to a leadership role, with increased power over process and people, and the all-important influence that can persuade and manipulate others.  Just being an elected office-holder tempts some to believe that they are special in some way, and that can lead to self-aggrandizement in some form: inside information that enables shrewd and lucrative investment; the ability to stay in power for an entire career of perhaps 20-30 years. 
  • Such acquisition of power and influence is often thought to be worthy of special privileges and rewards.  Holding elective office is even seen by some as being above the law, whether legal or moral.   And voila –  scandals and investigations, access to government money, hundreds of great choices for family healthcare, and pension plans not open to ordinary citizens appear on the scene. 
  • There is also the unique privilege of exemption from provisions of legislation and law that apply to everyone else. Did you know, for instance, that Congress exempted themselves from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?  That’s right.  You and I cannot get access, for instance, to a record of their meetings and conversations with their shadow constituency; nor can we access anything that is deemed to be personal property, like a calendar or schedule. Only what is said before Congress or a congressional committee is on the public record and therefore accessible.  
Part of the problem is that the Constitution does not give a great deal of guidance for the role of representatives in the Congress.  It sets some eligibility guidelines for the office, but not many responsibilities for the role.  It does tell us that they must represent a certain district; it is clear that they must pass legislation that applies to the defense and welfare of the People, set their own rules for the House and Senate, and raise money for government operations.  A paper about representation by the Congressional Research Service, dated Nov. 9, 2012, confirms this.
The U.S. Constitution establishes qualifications for Representatives and Senators, but it is silent about the roles and duties of an individual Member of Congress.  House and Senate rules require only that Members be present and vote on each question placed before their chamber.  Beyond voting requirements, there is no formal set of expectations or official explanation of what roles or duties are required, or what different Members might emphasize as they carry out their work. In the absence of such formal authorities, many of the responsibilities that Members of Congress have assumed over the years have evolved from the expectations of Members and their constituencies.
 In different periods of American history, the role of Congress shifted along with changing relations with the other branches of government, and was sometimes marked by intense partisanship and other times by cooperation across the aisle. Since the mid nineteen fifties, Congress has been marked by increasing partisanship in which congresspersons voted increasingly in line with their party, and were reluctant to cross the aisle to find compromises, and academics disagree about what factors underlie this trend towards greater partisanship and whether it is continuing.”
One could say in response to the latter that partisanship has not only grown and prospered, it has led to the destruction of constitutional intent that legislators shall legislate and not obstruct legislation.  It has also led to the placing of party loyalty and acquiescence above the duty and responsibility of solving problems, resolving issues, and taking action to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, secure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”  The Preamble is not simply an introduction; it is a statement of intent (“in order to” is the key) for what the Constitution is meant to accomplish.
Perhaps if this just quoted Preamble had been incorporated into the oath of office that every congressperson takes, it would have prevented representatives like my own claiming in public interview before a TV and Facebook audience, that national security and federal issues are her primary responsibilities under the Constitution!  Her responsibilities go well beyond that assertion, and are mainly domestic, according to the Preamble to our Constitution.
There are still, in spite of shifting responsibilities, some perceptions of what the critical duties of a representative ought to be.  The kicker is that the perceptions of congressional representatives and constituents tend to differ to some degree.  Here are two charts that explain a survey taken in the 1970s of both representatives in Congress and of their constituents, as to their perception of representatives’ roles and functions.

Table 1. Roles and Duties of a Member of Congress Identified by Members of the House of Representatives


Role                                            Duties and Activities          % Members Identifying 
 
Legislative                               Draft/introduce legislation                   87                  

Constituency Service     Help constituents solve problems                 79

Educate/Communicate      Articulate &take positions on issues;
                                              educate/inform about legislation             43

Representative                 Represent/advocate district’s                      26
                                           & constituent interests   

Political Campaigning         party leadership, and reelection                    11

Oversight                             Determine laws administered
                                                 as Congress intended                                  9

Institutional                        Interact w/ executive branch,                           7
                                           interest groups & other levels
                                           of government

Office Management           Oversight of personal office                              6

Everything                          "Jack-of-all-trades”                                           6

Other                                 Other varied expectations                                   4

 

Table 2. Jobs, Duties, and Functions the Public Expects a Member of Congress to Perform

 Function                                                                          % of Public Identifying 

 Work to solve problems in the district,
help the people, and respond to the
issues and needs of the district                                                                         37

To represent the people and district,
and to vote according to the wish of
the majority of their constituents                                                                     35

Keep in contact with the people,
visit the district, know the constituents                                                           17

Find out what the people need/want/think;
send out polls and questionnaires                                                                     12

Attend all or as many sessions as possible;
be there to vote on legislation                                                                              10

Be honest, fair, as truthful as possible,
keep promises, and be of good character                                                             10

Work on improving the economy, lowering prices
and creating more jobs                                                                                         10

Don’t know                                                                                                          10

[Source: U.S. Congress, House, Commission on Administrative Review, Final Report of the Commission on Administrative Review, H. Doc. 95-272, 95th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington: GPO, 1977), vol. 2, pp. 822-823. a.
Percentages are based on 1,518 public responses].

While there is obviously some overlap in what each cohort considers to be the most important roles of Congressional Representatives, there is an equal disconnect in terms of the main focus for each.  Office holders are more concerned with the roles played in relation to Congress and their federal and national security orientation, while constituents put their emphasis on the roles that relate to the home district.  I think this shows clearly a disconnect that has existed over the last 30 years at least.  The author, Eric Petersen, concludes:
With no formal or definitive requirements, each Member of Congress is free to define his or her own job and set his or her own priorities. Although elements of each of the roles described can be found among the duties performed by any Senator or Representative, the degree to which each is carried out differs among Members as they pursue the common goals of seeking reelection, building influence in Congress, and making good public policy.”  
My own conclusion is quite different:

While there is something to be said for the ‘freedom’ to define one’s role for oneself in certain areas, there is, in my opinion, much more to be said for the concept of political representation as defined at the start of this post.  Representation is not something that can be left solely to the discretion and definition of the representative, because, first of all, a representative is an agent, a proxy, and a person who stands-in and stands-up for someone else. 
A representative in the Congress is authorized to act as a law maker, as a policy-maker, as an advocate for his constituents, as a problem-solver for the people who elected him.  It is highly questionable, therefore, for the representative to go beyond that role unless he or she obtains a renewed permission or authorization from his constituents to do so.  Thus, it is highly questionable that beyond committee assignments (and those should be related to their value to the district and the voters), representatives should have a free hand to define their own roles and their relationship to those roles.

The very core of meaning for representation lies in the fact that the representative is there as the stand-in or proxy or manifestation of someone else.  Losing that core concept is how we got to where we are.  We have wrongly allowed congressional representatives to believe that:

1)      they are their own center of authority so that they do not need to consult their constituents or to solicit voter authority for what they do beyond the basic delegate role because
2)       an election victory is the only mandate they need;   
3)       it is within their authority to decide issues without the input of their constituents – of all their constituent groups not just their base; they do not arrange to hear what their constituents have to say on the issues; many even ignore what voters say as many have done on gun violence control and immigration
4)      policies, laws, investigations and resolutions that have nothing to do with problems, issues or concerns facing their constituents, but are concocted for reasons other than the representation of their districts (like self-aggrandizement, party loyalty and personal advancement) can continue ad nauseum
5)       they do not have to take the time to find out from their constituents how a particular piece of legislation will affect local lives;
6)      they do not have to represent all the people, but only a base of supporters 
7)      that they can put Party, sponsors, congressional committee work, junkets to foreign countries ahead of their obligation to their home districts and their constituents   
8)      they are worthy of special treatment and privileges not available to their own constituents such as free surgery, 200+ health plans from which to choose, or a great pension after only 5 years of service!
9)      they can simply ignore, delay or repeal laws or programs that they deem inappropriate without any input from those in their districts that it affects or helps
So, let’s get back to basics.

·         Contact your congressional representative -- or any office-holder – if necessary, remind them of their status as proxies and stand-ins and advocates. 
·          Let them know they have an obligation to hear your opinion even though you are not part of their base.
·          Ask them to put country ahead of Party.
·          Let them know that you, and others like you (refer to a particular group if you belong), are tracking their actions closely and you are letting others (especially the press) know the results of that, so you need answers
·         Pick one issue of importance to you and ask for their position on it and then ask
·         What they plan to do to seek further input from constituents on the issue – will they hold a Town Hall, a public meeting of any kind, a survey, a face-to-face meeting with groups related to the issue, door-to-door canvass -- what will they DO to solicit ideas?
·         If the representative, or the office staff, refuse to give you an answer to anything, indicate that you feel unrepresented, and ask just who is she or he representing on that issue.
·         For more ideas of approach, consult the www.indivisibleguide.com
 TAKE ACTION NOW!  Let your representatives know they are in their office to represent and advocate for YOU, not for a political Party, for themselves or for some rich sponsor.  And let your Rep. know that it is in her/his best interest to consult with you and others on a regular basis.  It is time to educate our elected representatives to reality: they are not the most important ingredient in this representative democracy.  That distinction belongs to the People/citizens/voters.  It’s time to take back our rightful place!