The Representatives’ New Clothes
Edmund Burke originally posited two forms of representation in the mid to late 1700’s. These forms have come to be the predominating theories for modern political practice, that of the Trustee and the Delegate. Later, a third model called Politico arose in an attempt to reconcile the two former ideas. Today, however, I feel that a fourth form is arising from a change in the way lawmakers are forced to act due to the current American government system.
Burke envisioned the idea of a Trustee as one who is given the trust of the constituency, to act as he or she best saw fit based upon their wealth of experience, without regard to the desires of the population. The idea was that often a Trustee needed to act on a moral basis for the common good, regardless of whether the majority favored such ideas. This was under the assumption that the majority can be susceptible to “mob rule” where knee jerk reactions, prejudice, and preconceived notions could trump sound reasoning and objectivity.
The Delegate model was under the assumption that no single representative should be given the authority to act as he or she saw fit, and as a delegate must surrender his or her own personal beliefs to the will of the constituency. In early America, this was viewed as a positive, in order to avoid the type of rule experienced under British Royalty, where the desires of the commoner were subjugated to and neglected by the aristocracy.
The third model called “Politico” arose in an attempt to reconcile the two ideas, under the argument that on some topics a representative should follow the will of the people, while on other topics he or she should act as a trustee such as when their expertise is apparent in a certain field, or when the majority clearly support a decision that is ethically wrong.
Why this is coming up today…
On October 30, 2013, the Swaps Regulatory Improvement Act passed the House of Representatives with much of the bill being written by lobbyists. The intention of H.R. 992 was to loosen regulation on derivatives trading activities of banks (whether that’s good or not is a highly partisan topic dependent on an individual’s political and economic beliefs).
According to Eric Lipton and Ben Protess in The New York Times, “Citigroup’s recommendations were reflected in more than 70 lines of the House committee’s 85-line bill…Two crucial paragraphs, prepared by Citigroup in conjunction with other Wall Street banks, were copied nearly word for word. (Lawmakers changed two words to make them plural.)”
Public and pundit outrage followed.
But is this really that unusual for lobbyists to write legislation word for word?
Matthew Yglesias of Slate wrote an article in May 2013 titled “Why Lobbyists Write Bills and Why You Shouldn’t Worry Too Much About It”. In it he argued that:
“When you think about it, this is basically the most benign function a lobbyist could be performing. It’s the famous (to political scientists) Hall & Deardorff “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy” model in which the lobbyists aren’t bribing the legislators to do what the lobbyists want, the lobbyists are helping the legislators execute on a shared agenda.”
And this makes sense, taken with a grain of salt that sometimes the interests of lobbyists and corporations are not exactly aligned with fair market competition or for the benefit of the general population. But there is an argument to make that their profitability and success, the growth of those corporations, should eventually benefit the lower level workers and larger segments of the population.
The economics and morality of H.R.992 aside, the outrage mostly stemmed from the fact that the politicians appeared to be either too lazy to write a bill, or too much in the pocket of the lobbyists to do whatever they want.
This brings me to the new form of representation.
The New Form of Representation
I’m making the argument that a new model of representation is arising today, or has gradually over the last 10+ years (to ballpark) – that of a Special Interest Group Trustee.
Currently, it’s clear in the media and in complaints from politicians in general: they don’t have time to do much besides prepare for the next campaign. Lunches are filled with meeting special interest group representatives who financially either supported previous campaigns or are offering to support future campaigns in exchange for “good faith” – I scratch your back, you scratch mine. In the office, and after hours, the majority of their time is spent tending to the press, maintaining approval ratings, formulating strategies to beat the political opposition – the vast majority of this time is campaign associated.
Furthermore, the voting records of modern politicians tend to be more in line with special interest groups than that of their constituency – and it is forced to be that way as the politician with the largest campaign war chest is most likely to win the next election. This is modern American politics. The officials are stuck – so they need staffers and lobbyists to write legislation (which tends to be so massive in scope that most politicians just read the “spark notes” version). All of these problems seem to be born from our current campaign finance system.
As a result of the current realities that politicians are forced to operate under, I posit that they no longer have a choice of acting as a Trustee with superior knowledge, or as a Delegate with a mandate from the people; instead both forms (the Politico reconciliation included) are discarded to act on behalf of their primary funding constituents, as a Special Interest Group Trustee.
This model is broken, and doesn’t bode well for our future as a nation under an equitable rule of law. For this reason, I hope you will highly consider the importance of campaign finance reform.
- Josh Silver: We Just Dumped a Bag of Money on a Congressman — Here’s Why (huffingtonpost.com)
- Campaign Finance Reform: A Necessary Change (bizgovsoc9.wordpress.com)
- Joe Lieberman, who once promised he’d never become a lobbyist, becomes a lobbyist (salon.com)
- Campaign contribution limits raised (heraldnet.com)