Opinion: Congress needs to grow a stronger backbone

No American institution is held in lower esteem than Congress. If you believe their critics, the House and Senate have become too elitist, out of touch and insulated from those whom they were elected to represent.

I want to make the case that the opposite is true: The problem is not that congressional leaders ignore the opinions of those who elected them. The problem is that they don’t. Public opinion is often poorly informed, highly emotional and easily manipulated, yet legislators increasingly echo it slavishly, fearful of the backlash should they exercise their own judgment.

Put another way, Congress is held in low regard because it has abandoned the elitist leadership role assigned it under the Constitution.

Let’s take it from the beginning, shall we?

The greatest fear of the Founding Fathers – expressed over and over again, throughout an extensive literature – was that the government that they were creating would become too susceptible to public passions, leading to wild excesses, loss of liberty and eventually to tyranny.

“The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice,” as James Madison warned in the Federalist Papers.

As a result, the founders took pains that Congress not serve as the expression of public passions, but as their suppressor and moderator. The best men of each community – they were always men, of course – would be vested with the decision-making powers that the people themselves could not be trusted to handle. The guiding principle was “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country,” to quote Madison again.

That concept of the citizen legislator, guided by but not dictated to by public opinion, was bolstered by practical realities. In the 18th and 19th century, a congressman who traveled from Georgia north to the nation’s capital went by horse or sailing ship; he couldn’t catch the 4:15 Delta shuttle back home to Hartsfield-Jackson on Friday afternoon. His constituents also couldn’t reach him by phone, email or text.

By any standard, he was far more “out of touch” than his Washington counterparts today, which also meant that he could operate with some degree of independence. Today, we’ve largely lost that capability. When CNN, C-SPAN, FOX and other media outlets document your every move instantaneously, when emails and phone calls can flood a congressional office at a moment’s notice, it becomes much more difficult for members to reach a quiet compromise or cut a deal. Members of Congress are now expected to act as little more than vessels of the vox populi, with major consequences if they step outside that role.

A congressman who casts an unpopular vote of conscience or wisdom in the morning knows that by early afternoon, his or her enemies will be spreading the news to tens of thousands back home through social media and other means; by evening, political action committees will be raising money off the vote to spend against him or her in the next cycle.

In short, time and distance once gave Congress insulation against the passions of the day, but thanks to technology that insulation has been stripped away. The consequence is that we draw ever closer to the unstable “pure democracy” that the founders feared most.

Note: This is Part One of a two-part series. The second, focusing on the manufacturing of opinion, will be published Sunday.

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