The Death of Representation
When the U.S. Constitution was first drafted, the Framers assumed that through the Separation of Powers government would govern on the basis of consensus. Members of the House would be closest to the people and specifically represent their districts. Members of the Senate would, of course, be representing larger constituencies. The President would be representative of the nation as a whole. Because each constituency was presumed to be different, only through consensus would any type of legislative action be possible. By design, the government was to be robust, and action would necessarily be incremental. This was, of course, to ensure the protection of individual rights.
With the advent of the party system in the early 1800s, members of Congress increasingly began to stake out partisan positions. But with increasing polarization, especially along party lines, we have seen in recent years the death of representation. Members of Congress no longer represent their constituents but spout the positions of their respective parties even when they are contrary to the interests of their constituents.
This would have been an anathema to the framers of the Constitution who viewed political parties to be no different than factions who only promoted their self-interests at the expense of the public good. Although they assumed the presence of interest groups, they detested political parties because they feared that the public good would be subverted to factional interests.
If we think back to Biden's Build Back Better package and Senators Manchin’s and Sinema’s opposition, they were performing as expected by their respective constituents. The Democratic party, however, expected that all of its members would vote lockstep with the president because he too is a Democrat. Similarly, Republicans expected that all of its members would vote against.
Because members are expected to assume their party’s respective official lines on all positions and adopt their party’s reigning narratives, they don’t really need to find out where their constituents sit on issues in their respective districts. Rather, they assume that if their party won election in the first place, then their constituents must obviously support their positions.
Eighteenth Century British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke held that representatives should represent on the basis of a trustee model. That is, they would make decisions on what they believed to be in the best interests of the public good. This certainly defied what has become the reigning model of representation — the delegate model, whereby representatives would do as their constituents tell them. But blindly following party narratives also defies the delegate model.
When Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the House she very successfully exercised party discipline. Members of her party caucus were expected to vote in accordance with the party line. That they might lose their seats in an upcoming midterm election was totally irrelevant to her because of the norm that members must sacrifice their future in Congress for the sake of party discipline and loyalty. In many cases, members who complied out of fear of losing plum committee assignments did end up losing their seats. At an earlier time, even as late as the 1990s, this would never have happened. Constituents came first; parties came second.
There used to be a group of “blue dog” Democrats in the House who were generally more conservative socially and fiscally. Founded as the Blue Dog coalition by conservative Democrats in 1995, they began to lose seats to Republican challengers who campaigned on a platform that voters should choose real Republicans. As a result of serious loses between 2009 and 2012, remaining Democrats have tended to be more liberal. This did not stop President Obama from turning the pressure on those remaining blue dog Democrats to support the Affordable Care Act, even if it meant they would lose their seats. Indeed, a couple of conservative Democrats who voted for it did lose their seats.
With the Supreme Court’s recent ruling overturning Roe v. Wade Democrats are expected to vote for laws allowing abortion while Republicans are expected to always vote the pro-life position. The interests of their constituents are again irrelevant. But if this is how Congress does its jobs, then it really isn’t doing its job.
Representation does mean different things to different people. There is voting on issues in accordance with how constituents want their members to vote. That is one function of Congress, generally known as the legislative function. There is also service work for constituents, such as helping people in their districts get things like Social Security checks. It can also mean calling up regulators to ensure that say banks in their districts have an easier time. But one of the most important functions of Congress which goes to the heart of representation is accountability through legislative oversight.
Through legislative oversight, Congress holds the executive branch accountable and thereby fulfils one of its representative functions. And yet, if oversight hearings divide into partisan battles with each party approaching an issue through its respective narrative, then serious representation isn’t occurring. The purpose of oversight hearings should be to learn new things and maybe uncover the truth. All too often, minds are made up before hearing any testimony. During the Trump administration Democratic members were convinced of Russian collusion while Republicans would defend him no matter what. Similarly, in the current Biden administration Republicans are convinced of Biden family corruption while Democrats are convinced that there is nothing there.
That Congress no longer seriously represents the public as it is supposed to should be a matter of concern. It is somewhat hypocritical to talk about “our democracy” when Congress — the representative body — fails to do its job. Moreover, when Congress doesn’t properly represent, it is hard for the public to have trust and confidence in public institutions. We have seen a decline in trust in public institutions. The public’s opinion of Congress has only declined further in recent years. Is it really any wonder why?