Thursday, July 05, 2007

Theories of Representation

In today's Washington Post, columnist David Broder laments what he sees as "mob rule" in the federal government:
The belief that official Washington is deaf to the people's wishes is a staple of political rhetoric for both Republicans and Democrats.Let a reporter who is not running for anything suggest that exactly the opposite may be true: A particularly virulent strain of populism has made official Washington altogether too responsive to public opinion.
He sees the defeat of the bipartisan immigration bill as evidence of this swing toward strict adherence to public opinion.

This is an interesting contrast to the way things are perceived to work in New York. It seems that the voices of the people are rarely heard at all, let alone heard so loudly that they force or sink passage of legislation. New Yorkers have been pleading for years for things like Wicks Law reform, energy solutions, and better economic opportunities for upstate.

During this Fourth of July week, it is interesting to think about representation and the delicate balance of the will of the people with what is right for the entire state or country. Should the will of the people ultimately trump all other considerations, as anti-Federalist Melancton Smith argued during the ratification of the federal Constitution? Or should our representatives be trusted to know better than the common person what is in the best interests of their constituents and the public at large, as argued by 18th century British political theorist Edmund Burke?

In New York, at least, it seems that our broken institutions prevent us from having either type of representation. The rules of the Legislature ensure that only bills that are approved by leadership are considered and approved, thwarting legislation that is popular with the public but opposed by powerful special interests. New Yorkers are also unable to trust that their elected officials will act in their best interests, since big donors and gerrymandered districts seems to have more sway over elections than voters.

That's why we think campaign finance reform, legislative rules reform, and independent redistricting must be on the top of the legislative agenda. Until and unless reforms in these areas are implemented, we can neither ensure that our voices are heard in government nor trust our representatives to act in our best interests.

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