Monday, April 12, 2010

The Will of the Constituents

What is the job of an elected official in the United States? To carry out the will of the people? To vote exactly like we tell them to, right?


This is a common misconception in fact one of the most pervasive in politics: why elected officials are there in the first place. To simply follow the will of the people is to essentially rule by referendum. That's a direct democracy. What we have is a representative democracy. The task is not to follow the will of the constituents. The task is to do right by the constituents.

Here's the difference.

Most people simply do not have the time to be up on every issue that an elected official might need to know about. And trust me, you're not. I'll prove it. Let's use Congress as our sample for the remainder of this article; you were going to anyway.

How well-versed are you on the subject of health insurance?
Now how are you on solar energy?
How about inner-city schools?
The largest employer in your district?
The local water supply?
Trade relations with Morocco?
The Western Sahara?
The crime rate in your district? What crimes are more common than others?
What can be handled by you, and what has to be handled at the state or local level?
Gay rights?
The condition of various infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges?
Patent law?
Net neutrality?
Eminent domain?
The local poverty rate?
Mountaintop removal?

This is just for starters. A member of Congress is expected to know about all of these issues and many more. We elect someone and send them to Washington to be a central hub for all the information one needs to make informed decisions on these issues. We place them in close proximity to an endless array of experts (they may be in lobbies and think tanks, but they are still experts), in a building not far away from a collection of every single book ever published in this country, along with all manner of other institutions of information and learning. In addition, we supply them with news from home at every opportunity.

And then, with all of that information in one place, a privilege the vast majority of constituents don't have, this member of Congress is asked to play it all off of each other, consider everything they've learned along with any personal experience, and then, we trust them to do right by us.

And the right move isn't always the move the constituents want.

Let's face it: sometimes, voters are stupid. This is not retail. The customer is not always right. California gives voters some of the most direct and extensive control over the direction of the state in the country, and California is nobody's idea of a well-run state.

As stated earlier, a direct democracy is little more than voting by referendum. And given referendums, voters will show two major things:

1. They want everything.
2. They don't want to pay for anything.

Needless to say, this is not a sustainable way of governing. Too many referendums in this vein have put California in a serious budget crisis. (This is not helped by the fact that it takes a two-thirds majority to pass a budget in California. There is an effort to remove that, but removing it requires a two-thirds majority and a referendum. Natch.)

This is why it is sometimes necessary for a representative to buck the will of the constituents: essentially, they must be willing to save the voters from themselves. Unfortunately, all too often the representatives don't get it right either. That is obviously partially on them for not properly interpreting the information presented them, or for knuckling under to interests that go against that of their constituents.

But it's also partially the fault of the voters. Sometimes the voters simply vote in the wrong person to represent them. Sure, sometimes the voters are fooled or manipulated, but sometimes the voters just plain screw it up. And the 'we only have two choices' argument doesn't hold water when, again, one looks at California. We've already brought the 2003 recall up in this space, but it bears mentioning again. After Gray Davis was recalled in 2003, California voters had a bewildering 135 options before them, in addition to the choice to keep Davis, effectively a 136th option. And that doesn't count the write-ins.

Given all of these choices, the voters selected: Arnold Schwarzenegger, primarily known for starring in movies where he makes lots of things blow up. In the process, the voters also placed Larry Flynt in 7th place, Gary Coleman in 8th, porn star Mary Carey in 10th, and comedian Gallagher in 16th. In 5th, 6th and 11th were candidates that had already withdrawn from the race. 2,536 people voted for billboard icon Angelyne, good for 29th place, despite the fact that she is notorious for not providing any information about herself.

Do you think any of those Angelyne voters have enough of a grasp on the issues to even contemplate being in a position of leadership?

I would love to test them.

A fair number of the people that think elected officials suck at their job undoubtedly harbor the opinion that they can do better. Unfortunately, without voting them in, there's no way to know for sure.

Well, almost no way. I present to you a reality show concept. Let's take a group of people who have never held elective office that think they can do the job of Congress better than Congress:

*One person from each Congressional district to play the part of the House. (Plus one person from DC. Get them participating.)
*Two additional people from each state to play the part of the Senate.
*One person to play the part of President, and a partner to play the part of Vice President.

This totals 538 people. (We'll call it 'The FiveThirtyEight' and get Nate Silver to host.) We'll have the show play the rest of the parts. The 538 would be placed into a simulated legislature and White House, and spend two years- the length of one Congress- dealing with the real-life job responsibilities of the actual offices. They'd write laws, debate issues, deal with constituents (viewer mail, perhaps), deal with the media, deal with lobbyists, and anything else that might come up. We'd see if they could actually do the job, or if they'd end up in way over their head.

If they end up in over their head, they come away with a kind of appreciation for the job. If they do well, hey, perhaps they could get into the real Congress one day.

It would be important to make it realistic. You really do want to see some of the 538 succeed, but you can't treat them with kid gloves either, just in case someone does eventually make it into the real Congress.

Anyone out there want to give it a go?

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