Monday, November 28, 2011

Congressional Representation

Of the plethora of procedures and policies within Congress, it is not surprising that one of the most integral parts is also one of the most intriguing: representation. Representation makes up one of the two main purposes of Congress, and without it the foundation by which our government was built, as well as the voice of the people, would be lost. Thus, it comes to no surprise that there are several factors that weigh into the way representation unfolds. Not only is it important to acknowledge the different types of representation and quality that members distribute individually, but it is also important to note representation from a party level, as a member is not only a representative of their constituents, but also a representative of their respective party. This blog will take a closer look at the ways representatives have used different forms of representation to keep the confidence of their constituents and fellow party members, but also examine new suggestions to improving the current system.

In this video Michael Lind, Executive Editor of National Interest magazine, shares his insight on ways to reform Congress. Of particular interest is Mr. Lind’s suggestion that term limits on members of Congress would provide for more effective representation. He suggests that term limits would effectively destroy the partisan deadline “monopolies” created by the two national parties, as well as eliminate both financial corruption and too much lobbying power, but ultimately he sees that this idea would not work. Instead, electing new members of Congress to replace the old would accomplish what term limits set out to do without having to change the existing establishment. Insuring that this rotation occurs, though, rests not only in the hands of the voter, but also on the members of Congress. Lind says that if you believe the problems of voting in effective representation rests with the representative, than you’re touching on partisan gridlock- when members of the parties are too busy arguing about issues instead of taking the time to sit back and evaluate what the proper solution is.

This discussion of partisan gridlock leads into the topic of compromise within Congress, and what it takes for this compromise to be possible amongst representatives. According to Steven Smith’s The American Congress, for compromise to be possible “members sometimes must retreat from their commitments to their individual states and districts.” Unfortunately, this idea of following the party is not viewed upon willingly by the constituents to whom the representative is supposed to be serving.

Constituents often feel that representatives should vote solely for what they have put them in office to do, which is named the delegate form of representation. According to Smith, however, it would be problematic to serve only as a delegate representative because constituents have “conflicting or ambiguous views (or none at all) about the issues before Congress.” If a member does not serve as a delegate representative the other option is to serve as a trustee. Smith defines a trustee as “representing his or her constituents by exercising independent judgment about the interests of the district, state, or nation.” This trustee form of representation would be the precise example of what many constituents find faulty in their representative. However, when it comes time to vote for representatives many voters fall into the trap of voting for a familiar face or name, rather than for the quality or record their representative. This lack of research on the voter’s part is exactly what Lind was discussing in the video, which results to reform ideas such as term limits.

Ideally the best representative would combine both the delegate and trustee points through something titled politico. Smith notes the downfall of politico representation is that, unfortunately, “constituents are not likely to agree either with which issues are important or when representatives should act as delegates and when they should act as trustees.”

First, in this video Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) discusses what she believes would be best for her party (Democrats) when voting on the budget revenue bill. This particular concept of voting along party lines leads into another important part of representation as a whole - party and group representation. Smith discusses in The American Congress the factors that go into a party politics in Congress. Although voters do not vote specifically for one party to lead Congress, the party with the most members is going to reign over the House, or have the most seats within the Senate- both very important positions when it comes to legislation. However, since we are only discussing representation it is important to discuss the affiliation of members with their party. It is expected that legislators will “join with their own party to enact or block legislation; to develop and maintain a good public reputation with the public; to seek or retain majority control…. a great deal of representation occurs through party mechanisms.” Essentially, if a representative has been a strong member of their party, when it comes time for reelection the party will rally together to help this representative win their election, while the opposite would occur if they were to vote against, or lose the trust, of their party.

The other idea that Representative Edwards touches upon deals with the most important part of representation: the constituents. Representative Edwards answers a question in regards to the lack of confidence the American people have in Congress for the upcoming 2012 election. The interviewer cites Gallup’s poll that the approval rating for Congress is at a mere thirteen percent, and asks her what she thinks they need to do as representatives to raise this percentage. According to Representative Edwards, Congress needs to return to what the Founding fathers envisioned when creating our government- representatives need to look at the vision of the people, and then from this vision she believes that the percentage will go up.

This vision of representation that Representative Edwards discusses hints at the delegate form of representation mentioned earlier. Steven Smith, however, may disagree with her point by stating that someone is always going to upset with Congress and you can’t represent off only feelings, to counter they must balance the role of party representation to gain the confidence of the public. When this confidence is gained on a national level then this individual representation can be focused on more closely in order to gain greater respect from the constituents.

In this last video, Michael Lind addresses one last interesting topic that is important to consider in terms of representation. Our Congress runs off of a two party system that many may consider not actually very representative of the United States as a whole. While there are a few Independents within the House of Representatives, there is by no means a strong representation of third parties within Congress. What Lind discusses, and somewhat suggests, is a new way to vote in members of Congress called cumulative voting. Lind states that this type of voting would include rotation, and more diversity, and give the minority voters more of a chance to have their voice heard. With that being said, taking both of Lind’s suggestions America would be made up of proportional representation with cumulative voting, which would then increase the number of third parties, thus expanding representation. Lind states it would be “highly unlikely” that America would ever increase to 20-30 parties, but that this type of representation would surely encompass more people than the two party system we use today.

In summary, there are several interesting factors that go into representation as a whole. Many seem to overlook the different forms, the party politics, and the suggestions to improve representation since it may seem like a basic idea. Representation will always be the most important function of a democratic Congress, as the ideas of the people shape what legislation should be created by our representatives.

Works Cited

Smith, Steven S. The American Congress, Seventh Edition. Cambrige University Press, 2011. Print.

All video clips taken from the C-Span Video Library