In any issue of importance, congressmen generally are torn in two directions. On the one hand, they are legislators charged with representing the interests of their constituents. On the other hand, they are members of a national assembly charged with advancing the public good or the good of the nation. National interests do not always coincide with constituent interests.
Edmund Burke spoke to the distinction in an address to the electors of Bristol, the County in South West England he represented in Parliament. Mr. Burke was forced to address the point publicly in a campaign for office. This is the message he sent to his constituents:
“I am sorry I cannot conclude without saying a word on a topic touched upon by my worthy colleague. I wish that topic had been passed by at a time when I have so little leisure to discuss it. But since he has thought proper to throw it out, I owe you a clear explanation of my poor sentiments on that subject.
“He tells you that ‘the topic of instructions has occasioned much altercation and uneasiness in this city;’ and he expresses himself (if I understand him rightly) in favor of the coercive authority of such instructions.
“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.
“My worthy colleague says, his will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If government were a matter of will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?
“To deliver an opinion, is the right of all men; that of constituents is a weighty and respectable opinion, which a representative ought always to rejoice to hear; and which he ought always most seriously to consider. But authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience,--these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.
“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament. If the local constituent should have an interest, or should form a hasty opinion, evidently opposite to the real good of the rest of the community, the member for that place ought to be as far, as any other, from any endeavor to give it effect. I beg pardon for saying so much on this subject. I have been unwillingly drawn into it; but I shall ever use a respectful frankness of communication with you. Your faithful friend, your devoted servant, I shall be to the end of my life: a flatterer you do not wish for.”
The very same point was raised by two members Of Connecticut’s U.S. Congressional Delegation during a Town Hall Meeting on Syria at the Darien Public Library in Darien, Conn hours before the U.S. Congress was to vote on a measure permitting President Barack Obama to use military force in Syria. The measure was carefully crafted by the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee days before U.S. Senator Dick Blumenthal and U.S. Representative Jim Himes addressed their constituents at theTown Hall meeting.
Mr. Himes stressed the importance of constituent representation and said that after reviewing classified documents relating to Syria, many of his questions were left unanswered. The issue itself was complicated and shrouded in uncertain claims, not the least of which is: Did Bashar Assad use chemical weapons in an attack during which 1,300 Syrians were killed?
Mr. Himes then laid down a rule of representation: If he were convinced that a sizable majority of his constituents were set against even the limited intervention prescribed by Congress, the evidence for intervention would have to be overwhelming to persuade him to vote in favor of it. A non-binding vote on the resolution then was taken at the Town Hall meeting, and a show of hands indicated overwhelming opposition to the measure both congressmen were to vote upon within days of the meeting.
Mr. Blumenthal pointed out that the consequences of military action were unpredictable. He was still listening and asking questions, he told the crowded assembly.
A great deal of consequence has flowed under the Syrian bridge since large numbers of Syrians, more than two years ago, began opposing the Assad regime. Within those two years, more than 100,000 opposition Syrians have died in what is now a religious and cultural sectarian civil war. The nature of the opposition also has changed. Iran’s hand has shaped events in Syria. President Obama has been unable to persuade traditional friends of the United States to support intervention, and Mr. Obama’s critics within the United States have said that he has waited too long to intervene. Time and chance wait for no man, and the chance of a successful military intervention in Syria may have passed – especially an in-and-out intervention that will leave Assad at the mercy of violent, anti-Western, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian Islamic Salafists.
Both the president and individual congressmen have watched developments in Syria for two long years. Terrorists in Libya on 9-11 sacked an American consulate and murdered an American ambassador. Egypt and perhaps Turkey, traditional friends of the United States, are now drifting on a Middle Eastern arc that does not bend in the direction of secular standards, Western democracy or even religious tolerance. Christians have fled Egypt, long a welcoming home to Copts; Christian and evangelical churches have been looted and burned – in Egypt, a country in which an Islam majority has lived for more than a century in peace and comity with non-Muslims.
And all this long while, Mr. Himes and Mr. Blumenthal have been watching and thinking and, one may hope, advancing the general good within a deliberative assembly “of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”