By Shelli Dawdy
Why do federal elected officials seem to be impervious to the objections of their constituents, specifically when those objections are voiced in large numbers?
That phenomenon was very well illustrated by the drama that reached a crescendo on October 3, 2008. Congress passed the bailout bill (TARP) despite call ratios into Congressmen and Senators’ offices of 9 to 1 against [1. It is a bit difficult to precisely quantify the call ratio; some reports say it was 100 to 1 against. The important is that there is no dispute the calls pouring in were overwhelmingly against the bailout bill. A brief post on Politico on October 1, 2008 confirms Senator Diane Feinstein’s office received 91,000 calls with 85,000 against, which is 93%.].
The inability to impact an elected official exampled itself in Nebraska in an unforgettable way when Senator Ben Nelson became the needed 60th vote to move health care to the next step, despite all the opinion polls that showed 2/3 of Nebraskans were opposed to the bill.
A couple of years ago, I was specifically motivated to understand whether or not this phenomenon affects all office holders or just those at the federal level. Are state, county, and local officials more likely to listen?
The jury is still out on this question, although in the serious effort GiN was involved in earlier this year, which included working to get a large show of support and sustained points of contacts with Senators, the message seemed to get through. The Legislature passed the State Sovereignty Resolution by a wide margin despite it being repeatedly described as “controversial” by the legislators themselves.
Of course, there is no one explanation for any phenomenon. The way our system has been changed over the last hundred years in particular, representing the will of ones’ constituents falls very near the bottom of any elected officials’ priority list, especially at the federal level.
Noting, however, that Congressmen in particular must keep re-election on their minds every two years, all cannot be explained away by such things as the influence of political parties or large dollar contributors, arrogance and elitism, or structural changes to the overall system. Members of the U.S. House have to pay some attention to their constituents. Even Senators have to maintain political viability, at least on the surface level.
I contend that the disease I call “limited-government-pattern-deafness” is the fault of the very American people who have that philosophy of government. I will include myself as one of those Americans who has been to blame in the past.
Since it is a fact that the vast majority of federal officials held offices in some combination of city, county, or state government previously, there is a simple question we must ask ourselves. How much contact did we have with that official when they were a State Senator, City Council member, or County Commissioner? When we learned they were a candidate for Congress, what did we know about them besides, perhaps, that their name was familiar? How many people knew the prior position they held, their voting record, and their general philosophy on government?
Did that candidate, when he was in local office ever hear from those of us who believe that government, at whatever level, needs to stick to the short list of duties it is empowered to do and leave the rest to us? Did they hear from any sizable number of such people – on a regular basis?
The evidence is clear – the answer is a resounding no.
Over the past two years, I have been making it a bit of a hobby, I suppose, to understand this whole subject, and so I’ve built up quite a “collection” of examples.
While I could cite a very long list, I will limit myself to a few…
Last year, I asked Larry Pratt[2. I interviewed Mr. Pratt about state sovereignty and Second Amendment rights for the documentary film, A New America, in August 2009.] who is a former member of the Virginia Assembly, who he heard from while in office. His answer was not a surprise; lobbyists and leftists.
Former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCoy spontaneously reported a similar phenomenon:
“On my first day, lined up outside my office were lobbyists…”
When a member of GiN visited with Rep. Jeff Fortenberry last year, he told the Congressman that he should vote for more limited government. Fortenberry responded that the people wanted more government.
Last fall, State Senators from Lancaster County held what was supposed to be a townhall meeting to discuss the scheduled special session to deal with a budget shortfall.
Linda attended that meeting, expecting to be joined by a number of other concerned citizens from around the county. What she witnessed was a meeting full of lobbyists and special interest groups advocating against cuts to their pet programs while pushing for tax increases. In addition to being myopic and self-serving, they were also quite cunning. Knowing the Senators were likely to find increasing taxes politically unsavory, they were “very creative”. They recommended raising revenues by adding taxes to items like soda pop.
From what Linda could see, she and another GiN member were the only two non-lobbyist / non-long term advocacy group members present, and by all evidence, the only limited government, lower spending proponents. As the meeting moved toward conclusion, she went before the microphone and reported her outrage at what she had witnessed. She concluded with an admonishment that it was her hard earned money that all the special interests were talking about spending, her money they wanted to tax further, and she had every right to keep it.
The most astonishing thing occurred – many people in the room actually shook their heads at that statement. None of the Lancaster County Senators reacted while the meeting was still in session, although Linda did hear from one supportive Senator privately, afterwards.
My final example is not a single incident – it is a series of experiences that reveal a prevailing climate that exists. Linda and I have made a number of visits to the State Capitol in the past year, mostly while the Unicameral was in session. My experiences so far have made plain to me that the overwhelming majority of Senators are not used to hearing from people who want government to do less, spend less, tax less.
What was even more disconcerting…it seemed as if none of the Senators whose legislation and activities we were tracking for various reasons were accustomed to having their actions observed very closely. There were even a couple of Senators who quite clearly thought we lesser beings had no actual right, or perhaps even the intelligence, to track the legislature or request explanations concerning their actions or lack thereof.
There is other evidence that our Senators do not hear often from people who want to see government slashed. In fact, the information we have indicates they don’t hear all that frequently from John Q. Citizen, regardless of his political persuasion. Linda and I have been told that as few as five phone calls in a day to a Senator’s office on the same topic is noteworthy. Ten calls are remarkable.
If an elected official hears repetitively and practically exclusively that people want the government to do things for their segment of business, their labor union, their advocacy group, “for the poor”, “for the children”, how can we possibly be surprised that they believe the majority of people also want some “goody” or other from the government?
The last thing on earth I want to do is to provide Nancy Pelosi with any excuses. However, when one puts into context that she is the representative from San Francisco, California, and adds it to the phenomenon I’ve just described, is it any real surprise that in response to a question about the Constitutionality of an action she is taking, she would ask, “Are you serious?”
When would Speaker Pelosi have heard anyone ask about the Constitution? …in San Francisco?
In my mind, I often compare members of Congress to those creepy looking fish found very, very deep in the dark caverns of the ocean. They are scary (looking). More importantly, though, they have been in the dark so long, they are blind.
By the time someone has been elected to Congress, they have heard over and over again in their prior positions from people who want more and more from government. When they finally hear from some of their constituents that they do not want the government to spend money or to do more, they have become convinced that those voices simply cannot be the majority. Otherwise, why hadn’t they spoken more frequently and earlier?
The solutions seem straightforward. We cannot expect people who were long ago rendered deaf to certain tones to suddenly hear them. It is time to get people into office who can hear from those of us who want limited government.
But more importantly, although we should all pay far more attention over time than we have been to what government and our elected officials are doing, we cannot forget the United States is a Republic.
We are supposed to elect people of character and principle to represent us. That would seem to require a new set of criteria by which we judge who we are going to vote for. We are going to have look a lot harder at people, ask more fundamental questions, and be willing to do more homework. It seems an investment worthy of our time. If we take this approach, we would have to hover far less.
Until we get another chance at changing our federal delegation in Nebraska (all of the incumbents secured the nominations for their positions by wide margins), our efforts would be much better spent on the people nearest to us who may yet have the ability to hear from limited government constituents.
Getting to know more about what our city, county, and state elected officials are up to and letting them know what we think about it gives us “double benefits”; it is likely we can curb the growth of government AND we can find out which officials have lost their ability to hear about limiting government before they ever run for higher office.
Look for more information on this site in the days to come about getting involved beyond making contacts.
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