Before casting your vote on Tuesday, November 6, for the individuals who will be tasked with representing you in the House or the Senate, consider this shocking fact. The U.S. Constitution is nearly silent on the expected duties of members of Congress. The only formal rule requires that members be present to vote on the questions before their respective chambers.
What this means is that the way in which our representatives conduct the duties of their offices has simply evolved over time. In other words, our representatives have no printed road map for the major responsibilities of their jobs, such as the vital responsibility to interact with constituents. It’s difficult to imagine, but there’s no rulebook for the degree to which representatives must take into account the viewpoints and desires of constituents when voting on legislation. Think about it. Our representatives – those people who write and vote on the legislation that determines our taxes, our healthcare options, the rules of the workplace, the guarantees of our civil rights, the safety of our food and water, and much more — govern by adhering (or not) to what is often referred to these days as nothing more than norms and traditions.
It’s hardly shocking, then, that lacking clear guidelines those norms and traditions can be summarily tossed out the window and with them the assumptions about how our democracy works. In the past, those norms and traditions were respected. But times are changing. And the brazenness of some members of Congress to disregard those traditions and depart radically from what is called “regular order” should shock us to our very core. Of course, the most egregious example was the denial by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of a confirmation hearing for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. This is where we are on the eve of the most consequential election of our lifetimes—deeply uncertain and justifiably distrustful about even the rules of the game, thanks to Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party.
With no set rules, it’s not surprising that the manner in which our elected officials approach representing our interests becomes a personal choice, depending on personality, outlook, or commitment or courage for the time, energy, and fortitude it takes to interact in person with individuals and interest groups and weigh their sometimes conflicting opinions. It’s generally accepted, however, that two main styles of representation have emerged over time. Some representatives see their job as responding directly to the viewpoints and instructions of their constituents. This is called the delegate style. Members of Congress who follow the delegate style are more apt to hold public town halls and to solicit directly the viewpoints of their constituents before casting their votes. Other representatives follow what’s called the trustee style, in which they rely primarily upon their own judgment and initiative.
The trustee style, which seems to predominate among the current Republican members of Congress, has most certainly led to a lack of accountability and to the perception by many Americans that their elected officials do not reflect nor represent their interests. Combine the trustee style with the influence of donors, lobbyists, and special interest groups and it’s easy to understand why the fundamentals of truly representational government are threatened and why, unfortunately, so many Americans question the relevance of voting and believe that politics has no place in their lives.