Big Sort

Why House Members Aren’t Supposed To Just “Vote Their Districts”

House members say phone calls are running 9-1 against the financial rescue bill, and that raises a question. If people really oppose the bill in those numbers—and there are signs they don’t —shouldn’t “representatives” vote that way?

That was the practice in Colonial New England town meetings, writes Michael Schudson in The Good Citizen . Citizens elected representatives at town gatherings, and “there was a tendency for the meetings to control representatives by providing them mandates or instructions to carry out.”

The ties between elected official and voter were looser in the middle and Southern colonies, but the notion that representatives should pay any attention at all to citizens was something that distinguished American democracy. In Britain, representation didn’t mean that there would be consultation with voters. Accountability came with elections. Between votes, British representatives made up their own minds. In the colonies, however, representation “had begun to imply, as it did not in England, that the representative should not only use his own judgment but also speak for his constituency.” Representatives were “expected to possess local knowledge and to identify with the interests of their constituents.” They were supposed to “vote the district.”

The conflict early in American democracy, Schudson wrote, tugged between “representatives’ obligation to their own best judgment of the public good and their responsibility to the interests of the people.”

During the debate on the Constitution, there was an attempt to tie the votes of representatives directly to the will of the people living in the district. (Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein tells this story the best in Why Societies Need Dissent .) The question was whether the Bill of Rights should contain a “right to instruct” representatives—a Constitutional guarantee that citizens could tell their elected officials exactly how to vote on particular pieces of legislation. Anti-federalists made this proposal as a way to restrict their representatives, to constrain the power of the federal government. It was also, to be sure, a more direct and complete fulfillment of the democratic promise of the revolution. After all, shouldn’t politicians do what voters demand?

The country chose a different course, wisely so, according to Sunstein. Early American communities were isolated and extraordinarily homogenous. That insularity was a disadvantage. Decisions were made with limited information and without hearing different points of views. Moreover, like-minded groups were prone to grow more extreme in their views over time, increasing the chance that decisions made locally might be indefensibly severe.

Connecticut’s Roger Sherman made the argument against the right to instruct amendment:

The words (of the right to instruct amendment) are calculated to mislead the people, by conveying an idea that they have a right to control the debates of the Legislature. This cannot be admitted to be just, because it would destroy the object of their meeting. I think, when the people have chosen a representative, it is his duty to meet others from the different parts of the Union, and consult, and agree with them on such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community. If they were to be guided by instructions, there would be no use in deliberation.

The purpose of pulling people together from around a vast and quite diverse country was that you might actually learn something from a representative with a different point of view. Sunstein told me that one of the most profound insights of those who rejected the “right to instruct” was “to see heterogeneity as a creative force which would enable people not to hate each other but to think more productively what might be done to solve problems. It turned this vice into a virtue. I think that was the most important theoretical contribution the framers made. And at the best moments in our history, that’s what’s happened.”

It would be a stretch to say this has been one of the country’s “best moments.” Congressional districts, even states, have grown more homogenous as people have sorted into like-minded communities . The advantages of deliberation Sherman recognized were lost in partisan rigidity long before the financial system needed bailing out.

The benefit of this crisis (and we’re really scratching to find one) is that perhaps Congress will rediscover the use of diversity. That’s a start. We’ll worry about enabling “people not to hate each other” another day.