Your Congressmen/Women: Delegates or Trustees?

Tangent QuestionA tangent question from a follower regarding  my last article (Re-chewing the Simpson-Bowles Cud) deserves its own article.

The question had to do with how much latitude our congressmen/women should be allowed to exercise when representing our wishes in Washington D.C.  This gets to the theory of representative government, so first here’s some background on the topic.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was a political theorist, orator, and member of the British House of Commons from 1765-1780.  He was supportive of the Colonies’ grievances against King George III, and Burke’s political theories influenced the American founders’ philosophy of government.  Burke recognized two approaches to the practice of representative government.

The “Trustee” Model of Representation

Trustee - selected for like-minded judgementIn this model, an elected representative is allowed to use his or her own best judgment in deciding how to correctly vote on behalf of the constituents, even if this means sometimes voting against desires of a majority of the constituents.

Burke advocated this model in his Speech to the Electors of Bristol on Nov 3, 1774. Here’s one paragraph of it, though the complete 6-paragraph speech is worth your time:

“Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Burke felt this approach discouraged hasty decisions influenced by local prejudices, and encouraged a deliberative assembly of representatives to act as one nation (at least for Britain).

The “Delegate” Model of Representation

Delegate - selected for perfect obedienceIn this model, the public “instructs” their elected representatives exactly how to vote. In other words, an elected representative is to always vote in exact accordance with how a majority of his or her constituents prefer. 

The pros and cons of both approaches are analyzed in Chapter 12 of J.S. Mill’s Representative Government (from 1861).  John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a British philosopher and political economist.  The chapter is called “Ought Pledges to be Required from Members of Parliament?” 

Delegate representation, if performed rigorously, relies on frequent and accurate conversation between the rep and his/her district.  Compared to Britain, the U.S. is geographically huge.  On the other hand, compared to Burke’s era (mid 1700s) and Mill’s era (mid 1800s), modern technology greatly improves real-time contact with remote locales.  Still, it has been my experience that face-to-face town hall meetings give me a much better feel for, and influence upon, my representatives’ position on issues than impersonal delayed-response (if at all) emails.  Delegate representation also necessarily relies on a high level of public interest and knowledge of issues. 

I am personally comfortable with an elected trustee.  But I recognize my circumstance may not be typical.  I have always had the distinct pleasure of living in strongly conservative congressional districts. This year, my county voted 72.5% for Romney. In 2008, my county voted 69.0% for McCain.  I research my representative’s ideology before I vote for him/her, and I trust that he/she follows that deep-rooted ideology consistently. 

However, I don’t believe in blind trust.  I monitor my current representative’s votes in congress.  I subscribe to his newsletters.  I attend his town hall meetings in my area, especially when a big vote is coming up.  He has never strayed from the principles I helped elect him to follow.  If he ever does, my recourse is to support an alternative candidate in a future primary.  This works for me.

Finally, here’s the question I was asked 3 days ago:

“Who elects the Congressperson and who is that Congressperson supposed to represent?  Assuming your answer to both questions is the same (“the people of his or her district”), we are on the same page.

Now, if this is so, if his/her constituents are completely against policy “A”, while the rest of the country is for that same policy, on what basis are you suggesting that there is a mandate in evidence which requires he/she support this “mandate” and thus vote against the expressed will of his/her constituents?”

Due to the words I underlined, it’s obviously an exaggerated scenario designed to pit the strongest of all possible district mandates against the strongest of all possible national philosophical mandates.  This degree of incongruence is not likely to ever really occur.  But I’ll play along:  I would say in this case the representative should act as a delegate and faithfully represent the “completely” unanimous (100%) wishes of his/her constituents. 

The questioner’s fair intent was probably to pin me down and make me admit that there is a point somewhere between a 50.01% and 100% majority where a trustee should no longer be free to exercise personal judgement that’s against the majority.  Again, I’ll play along:  I suppose I’d say that point is 60%. 

What are your views?  Do you “trust” your representative?  Has he/she recently defied the majority wishes of your district, and were you in the majority or the minority?  If you favor delegate representation, how would you practically carry it out?  How would you assure an informed constituency, and how would the majority opinion be measured reliably and quickly?


(photo credit)  (photo credit)

About Necessary and Proper

Jeff believes in the Individual's ability to excel when liberty and freedom of choice are protected. Also believes in the Community's ability to take care of the vast majority of its own issues and needs when the federal government leaves the Community's resources and sphere of control alone. State and local choice produce better results than centralized federal control.
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4 Responses to Your Congressmen/Women: Delegates or Trustees?

  1. I’m with you on it – trustee, with some degree of monitoring. People who assume their representative is supposed to act as a sort of poll robot (delegate in the sense of a lower-ranking employee) don’t understand the meaning of the word “republic”. I have a life outside of government, so I vote on whose positions toward issues I agree with and then if elected, I expect them to act autonomously. It’s their job. Micro-managing doesn’t help them do it. If when their term ends I dislike their record, I’ll vote for someone else.


  2. Jack Curtis says:

    Hmnn … The “delegate”/Trustee standoff seems an equally extreme dichotomy as the way your interlocutor put it to you. An American Congresstype is necessarily, a mix of each of those forced choices. The Constitution assures it, seems to me. Call it a Gordian solution to the knotty, forced choice imposed …

    The tech shrinkage of the distance between Washington and elsewhere is shifting the center of the balance between the two extremes toward the delegate and further away from the trustee, it appears. The resulting stresses seem likely to increase the drive for government limitations on the Internet ..(I suspect our governors prefer the “trustee”).


    • Jack, you said “a mix of each of those forced choices.” I agree. That’s why I offered 60% constituent majority as an approximate dividing line. Below that line, the balance of opinions seems equal enough that the elected official has some latitude to inject his/her own judgment as a trustee. Above that line, the constituent majority approaches a supermajority and the official ought to leave his/her judgment out of it and vote with the overwhelming opinion of the constituents.

      What makes you assert that the Constitution assures a mix of delegate & trustee behavior? Seems to me that elected/appointed officials in all 3 branches of government pretty much have free reign to ignore as much or as little of the Constitution as they please, without much accountability.

      – Jeff


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