What is the job of our elected officials?

Comment by Mr. Pink Eyes in Larry’s post “Obama – Time to make a decision”:

“I also would like to know who he thinks he is. He is supposed to act on the will of the people, not enact laws against the will of the people just because he feels it is right. He needs to remember that he works for us, we pay his salary.” 

Generally I think we all agree with the intent of that statement but it has given me pause and I thought I would play a little devils advocate here. The basic question I’m wrestling with is whether we elect our government representatives to vote our views or their views? That is, is an election a determination that the winner best represents the majority view of the public even if we disagree with him on certain positions, or have we elected a person who is expected to represent the majority view of his constituents regardless of his personal position on the issue? If, for example, a candidate presents himself in support of a ban on assault weapons in a district overwhelmingly opposed to such a ban, is the candidate, upon election, expected to vote in support of or in opposition to the ban? For me that question is a no-brainer – he was elected despite his view on the assault weapons ban and he should vote in favor of the ban as he campaigned. Does anybody disagree with that? 

Assuming the majority of you agree with me on voting for a well-articulated position then we move on to the vast majority of voting – those which come up in the course of governing that were not anticipated or expressed in the campaign. Let’s take health care. Both Obama and McCain were big supporters of health care reform during the campaign though they approached it in different ways. In general, the American people support health care reform even if they oppose the specific legislation now before Congress. At the time of the election a huge majority of the public supported health care reform. A Dem congresswoman who campaigned in strong support of health care reform but now finds her constituents opposed to the President’s proposal finds herself in a bit of a pickle. She agrees with the President and wants to see health care reform pass but she has a constituency which, according to the latest poll, is opposed to the plan by 60-40 percent. Her experience suggests that when she holds small meetings and is able to articulate her position and explain the bill many people find themselves in agreement because they didn’t understand the specifics of the plan. So how should she vote? Let’s assume for the moment that she is retiring so there is no concern about reelection. What is her responsibility? I think her job is to vote as she thinks right. If she votes only the way the polls tell her to vote then she is nothing but a puppet. There are very few issues that are pre-polled and, if she has a strong opinion, then she needs to vote her view. If she is not strongly impressed by either side then she should vote her expectation of the view of her constituents. I think that is what she is paid for. Unfortunately, what we see much too often, on both sides of the aisle, is that she votes the view of her party leaders — and THAT has got to STOP. I’m sure many of you will disagree with my conclusion and I’m very interested to hear your rebuttals. 

Let’s return to Mr Pink Eyes’ comment about Obama: “He is supposed to act on the will of the people, not enact laws against the will of the people just because he feels it is right.” The American people are a fickle lot. We are quick to change our focus and change our minds. The House “feels” that change more rapidly than the Senate and is quicker to express the changing will of the people. The day before the underwear bomber incident national security was well down on the list of America’s priorities (an enormous and continuing mistake, in my opinion). The day after it shot up, Congress was screaming over the incompetents at Homeland Security, and the GOP wanted Janet Napolitano’s head on a platter. Today, not so much noise about that. The Senate is a more deliberative body and less likely to get caught up in the swirl of public reaction. Is that elitist or is that the proper role of the Senate? When the House is screaming “we need to act now” in response to similar screams from the people, and the Senate says “remain calm – we are taking all precautions but we must think before we act” is the Senate ignoring the will of the people or acting responsibly to avoid panic? Again, I see this as a no-brainer – we don’t want a paternal, elitist response saying “be quiet, we know what is best” but we do want cooler heads to prevail because the people doing all the screaming are very often a bunch of hotheads who simply need to be ignored. I may have just carved out a very fine line but it’s one our representatives in Washington are paid to manage. 

OK, so that leads me to the role of the president and whether, in fact, his job is to act according to the will of the people or to act in a fashion he thinks represents the best interests of the country regardless of popular opinion. I confess I am currently undecided on this issue. I find it much easier to take a stance on the role of Congress because they generally represent a more homogeneous set of interests within a congressional district or a state. Congressmen in particular come up for election every two years (too often in my opinion – it’s a constant campaign) so they are regularly subject to electoral review. It’s much more difficult when you have the entire country as your constituency and your election victory was anything but a landslide. George W. Bush failed to win the popular vote but governed as if he had a broad electoral mandate. Is that the way a president needs to govern? “I won and now here’s what I’m going to do.” Is that why we elected him or did we elect him to follow the shifting sands of our priorities? Is health care really the nation’s top concern or has that case been made through political prioritization? Jobs and the economy should be number one and it is for many people; but would you know it by reading the paper or listening to the news? Obama himself seems to be focused on those critical issues right now while the media stays focused on health care and Tiger Woods. 

As I said at the start, I’m writing this more from a devils advocate position than out of a firm conviction in my argument. I hope others of you will chime in with your thoughts.

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Michael Fields has written 65 posts in this blog.

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19 comments to What is the job of our elected officials?

  • “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

    That’s his job, and he’s doing everything he can to avoid upholding that oath.
    .-= Matt ´s last blog ..Tax Extenders Act, Keeping All Students Safe Act, Jobs for Main Street Act =-.

  • Mike

    Okay, so that’s one vote for “any President who doesn’t do what I think is right is a jackass.”

  • Mike

    I had to look that up. Pretty clever actually but, as with your first comment, off the mark. I’m not a left wing radical though I expect you view anybody who is not a hard right conservative as coming from that school. Look, I presented a thought about the role of our elected officials and how they are meant to vote. I didn’t ask for your opinion of Barack Obama (as if I needed to be reminded of what it was). If you have no interest in having an intelligent discussion then fine. My sarcastic response to your comment is as inappropriate as the comment itself.

  • Mr Pink Eyes

    Technically we vote for representatives to vote their views because they are supposed to represent the views that are closest to our’s or they wouldn’t have been elected. If a person wins an election and there is a position that he holds on an issue that is at ods with the majority of the people, I would guess that issues wasn’t a major one during the campaign or he may not have won election.
    The House, being the closest branch to the people, should take the pulse of their constituents on a regular basis and vote the will of the people– in my opinion. They were supposed to be the check on the senate as the senators used to be picked by the states to represent the states. They are the more obligated to the people than the senate and the president to vote the will of the people.
    During the campaign we are filled with generalities on many issue, it is easy for a person to say I am for this or I am against that, but when a bill starts to take form the people may change their position on the issue– that seems to have happened on the healthcare issue, I see nothing wrong with the senate and even the president taking the temperature of the people to guage the public support for the issue. Let us not forget that Barack Obama preomised to post all bills online for five days before he signed them so that the people could read them and comment, in the interest of being more open.
    However, there have been times when the presidents have encated legislation against the will of the people and have been proved right. George Washington went from hero to villian with the signing of Jay’s treaty against heavy scrutiny but history has shown him to be right.

    There is quite a bit to digest in this post, and I am pressed for time. I have to go to work, but this is an interesting topic and I will be back tonight.

    • Mr Pink Eyes

      Continuing from this morning.
      Congress is supposed to provide the check on the president, not giving him too much power. If the House is subject to the will of the people as they should be– that is the reson for the election every two years– they should know where their constituents stand on an issue, and if the president is at odds with what their constituents want they should vote accordingly with the people. It seems to me that the good of the nation will still be decided, as different representatives’ constituents will have different positions on the issue. In the end a majority of sorts will still rule the day. But people should be able to have faith that their representatives will vote they way they want them to.
      The Senate on the other hand is not so beholden to the people with their elections coming only every six years, they have to see the bigger picture and this is where- as you said– cooler heads will prevail.
      If the representatives represent the people, and the people through their representatives state their opposition to the president’s policy it would seem that the president should at least take into account what the representatives are trying to tell him, not try to strong arm the representatives into voting for a policy that is not what the people want.
      In the end, I suppose my comment that you based this post on may have been geared to the wrong person, perhaps I should have been more focused on the people that more directly represent me. But the president does have an obligation to listen to what the people are trying to tell him.
      Hopefully what I have tried to say will come across and isn’t too rambling. I am trying to write too much too fast.
      This was a great post Mike!

  • It is correct to say our elected officials should be upholding the Constitution. That is what they have sworn to do. However, doing that may become a cloudy issue, once a person is actually in office and in the middle of doing their job. It is altogether possible that upholding the Constitution may go against the will of the people who sent them to Washington. Should they be able to determine the constitutionality of each action? Maybe, maybe not, but I will say this. It’s easy for someone on the sidelines to say they should be doing that, when most of us have never been involved in the actual process of governing. It may not be as easy as it looks.

    As Mr. Pink Eyes has already pointed out, the President has enacted legislation in the past that many would say is unconstitutional, but history has proven them to be correct in their actions.

    Good article, Mike. You have certainly given us something to think about.

  • Laurie

    Elected officials, good ones, both represent the will of their constituencies and enact legislation that is protective of the nation’s overall health.

    The very worst thing, I think, is for a legislator to vote based on the polls, especially national ones that often ask “push” questions and poll from their own data bases that may or may not reflect a particular district or state’s overall attitudes. The polls are then spun by an often agendized media who will report the findings in the manner that serves their base. Pick a side, any side.

    Not legislating based on polls is expecially important in the health care debate, which has been waged unfairly and irresponsibly, giving the public misleading information at times, and given that (as Mike pointed out) Americans are a fickle lot. The White House has accurately pointed out polls that, on the major componenents of the bill, show a large majority of support. Put together in total, though, and run through the political and media spin cycle, Americans are against it.

    Give me a representative who doesn’t talk in PartySpeak, who asks how this will affect our state AND our nation (given that HC reform will affect both) and who leads the way with a vote for the best decision. In my state, at least, we have that whether Democrat or Republican. And that’s all that I can ask.

  • Mike

    Thanks for all your comments. They are interesting questions. It seems especially head-scratching when you have a senator from each party in a single state — they certainly can’t both be voting the will of the people of their state when they vote on different sides of most issues. And while I agree that the duty of all our elected officials is to uphold the Constitution that hardly is a guiding light for 99% of the votes they make. Even on health care, where there is legitimate debate about the constitutionality of an individual mandate, the job of Congress is to do what is in the best interests of the country. If the Supreme Court later determines that action to be unconstitutional then Congress can revisit the issue. That’s how it works and it works pretty darn well.

    Mr Pink Eyes is undeniably correct in observing that important presidential decisions in history have contradicted the will of the people — some worked out well and some not so well. But it takes a brave (or stupid) man to make such a decision and effectively say “the political consequnces be damned.” Obama seems ready to put himself in that position on health care. Like him or not I think it’s something to be admired. No need for a response to that — I know few of you will share that sentiment.

    • I can think of another instance where our President made a decision that was very controversial, one that he personally considered unconstitutional. That would be the case of Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase. He considered it unconstitutional to make the purchase, but also felt it was important enough to the United States that he overrode that personal sentiment. At the very least that is interesting in the context of the effect it had on America.

      Mike, you know that I do not care for President Obama and his policies. I do however, agree with your assessment of him. He does seem to be willing to do what he thinks is right, no matter the political consequences.

      • Steve Dennis

        That is a great example Larry, even Thomas Jefferson didn’t think he had the authority for the Louisiana purchase but he did it anyway, even though it went against everything that he believed in when it came to the roll of the federal government.


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