Last week I argued that two of the most important qualifications of an officeholder, especially a lawmaker, are knowledgeability and civility. This week I want to talk about a piece of information voters should try to get from legislators and candidates for membership in a legislature, whether it be a senate, house of representatives), county commissioners court, city council, ISD board of trustees, or any other legislative body. Voters should ask them, “What’s your representational type?” Knowing the answer will let the voters better know what sort of lawmakers the people asking for their votes may be.
In general, students of legislatures and their members identify three types of legislative types: The delegate, the trustee, and the politico.
The delegate always votes whatever way he thinks public opinion tells him to vote, regardless of his personal beliefs. He sees his position as that of representing and implementing his constituents’ collective will. If they want tax cuts, he supports tax cuts even if he thinks the government needs more revenue. If they want more spending, he’ll support more spending even if he thinks the government is already spending too much.
The biggest problem with this approach is the difficulty in trying to find out what the public wants. Voter turnout in all elections other than presidential is way less than 50%; for most local elections it’s less than 10%. Trying to figure out what the public thinks can be quite difficult if most of the public chooses not to offer an opinion at the ballot box.
Moreover, the public may change its mind from one year to the next, or even from one month to the next. For example, in May 2000 I was first elected to the city council after campaigning for the Proctor Pipeline. Two months after electing me with 55% of the vote, 87% of the public rejected the pipeline project after all. What’s one to think?
The trustee respects public opinion, to the extent he can determine it, but when voting he ultimately relies on his own judgment, regardless of what the public may want. If the public wants no tax increase but he thinks a tax increase is necessary, he votes for it. If the public wants more spending on a particular matter and he thinks the government can’t afford it, he says “no.”
To take the trustee approach is to risk creating an image of arrogance and indifference to public opinion, and to court defeat at the polls. At the very least, the trustee has an obligation to try to explain why his way was better, and at best he might even succeed. But the voters always have the right to vote him out of office whatever the merits of his case. And if the would-be trustee doesn’t understand his obligations or the voters’ rights, he wasn’t fit to hold office in the first place.
And then there’s the politico, who sometimes votes as a delegate, and sometimes as a trustee, depending on the importance of the issue, the clarity and strength of public opinion, and his own conscience. For what it’s worth, I tended to be a politico. On some matters, I always voted my own conscience. For example, I always believed—and still do—that if someone meets all the legal requirements for opening, owning, and operating a legitimate business, the government has no right to prevent him from doing so. That’s why I supported every single application of restaurant owners and would-be bar owners to rezone their land to permit alcohol sales even though I’m a strict and fanatical teetotaler. It’s also why I opposed banning smoking (a legal activity) in restaurants if their owners were otherwise willing to allow it, believing that whether smoking is to be permitted, limited, or banned outright is purely up to the restaurant owner, and whether he gains or loses customers as a result of his decision is purely his own business (I don’t smoke and usually don’t eat out where smoking is permitted).
On the other hand, when public opinion was stated with too much clarity for anyone to ignore, say, as in the form of election results, I supported the election returns even if I had voted the other way. For example, I was one of the 13% to vote for the Proctor Pipeline in 2000, but I became one of the three city council members to vote against it in 2004, because the public had overwhelmingly rejected it.
There’s really no one best approach to lawmaking. But if the voter knows a prospective lawmaker’s representational style, he may have a better idea of how he’ll act in office, if elected. And lawmakers, or prospective lawmakers, will need, if they haven’t already done so, to discipline themselves to do their best, however they choose to approach their jobs. If that wins them the approval of the voters, great. If not—too bad, so sad. That’s life. That’s politics. That’s democracy.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.