Legislators versus representatives (or, how Scott Brown is about to get schooled).
Posted on 16:37, January 21st, 2010 by Pablo
Former Cosmopolitan Magazine nude pinup boy Scott Brown’s victory in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is a body blow to the Democrats and Obama administration, especially with regard to its attempts at healthcare reform. The pundits have already well dissected the reasons for the first GOP senatorial victory in Massachusetts since Edward Brooke’s tenure ended in 1979. Voter anger with the Washington “establishment,” the role of the Tea party movement, the arrogance and complacency of the Coakley campaign–all of these factors made for a decisive electoral shift that will have significant repercussions outside of the state in which the original tea party took place. That much is clear.
But what have the good people of Massachusetts got for their preference? For one thing, they have a rookie Senator who has no national-level experience at all and just ten years of legislative experience in a very liberal state. Nor does he have any executive experience. In fact, Barack Obama looks like an elder statesman in terms of previous experience when compared to the male model-turned politician. Moreover, Brown has been elected at a time of extraordinary anti-politician and anti-Washington sentiment that, even if born out of the mistakes of commission and omission of the Bush 43 administration, have seemingly been compounded by his successor. This has made for a highly volitile political climate that in turn has made extraordinarily attractive his vague populist appeals as a Washington “outsider,” something that traditionally resonates with a disgruntled electorate (and boy, are they disgruntled now!).
Why this matters is because of the arena in which he is about to enter. Much more so than in parliamentary systems (where party discipline and hierarchy often supersede the representational mandate, especially when List MPs are involved), elected officials representing states at the national level in the US Congress fulfill two roles: that of representatives and legislators. On the one hand, they represent the interests of their constituents, be it district (US House of Representatives) or state-wide (US Senate). This role is played up during electoral campaigns (hence Mr. Brown’s claim that he is a “Brown Republican” who will independently champion the interests of his state), and is much more important for US House representatives who are elected every two years. Senators, in contrast and by design, elected every six years and representing state-wide interests that can be quite heterogenous and often competing, tend to limit their appeals to the representative role to election season. Either way, that is only half of the equation.
Once in office, US congressmen and women become legislators. That means that they need to engage in the political bargaining and understanding of national-level issues as well as those that most immediately impact their individual constituencies. Sometimes these two levels of engagement–national and local–run against each other. The congressional legislator, by the nature of the US political process, must steer towards compromise rather than principle in most instances given the competing interests at play. Thus the legislator role often is at odds with the representative role, which is part of the reason why the Founding Fathers designed the two-chamber Congress (in order to allow the Senate to overcome the populist tendencies of House members).
This is where Scott Brown is about to be schooled. As a novice Senator he will be at the bottom of the congressional pecking order. His appointment to committees, which is determined by a mix of seniority, trade-offs and patronage, will depend largely on how he “gets along” with his fellow Senators (committee work being the most important aspect of a senator’s job, as it is in committee where all bills are first considered). Since his victory is owed more to the tea bag movement and conservative media support rather than than of the GOP bloc in Congress, he is walking into a forum without much political cover. Moreover, he is a moderate Republican (for example, he supports abortion rights) in a party increasingly dominated by non-elected conservative fundamentalists. Sure, he will be lionised by the Republican National Committee and congressional bloc at first. But once the hard work of legislating begins, his representative appeal will have to take a back seat to the back room wheeling and dealing of which legislation is made (recall the old adage that the two things one never wants to see being made is sausage and US legislation). As a minority state senator in a one-party state like Massachusetts he has some notion of what that entails, but if he is to be more than a one-term Senator, he will have to lift his game exponentially given the national stage he is now playing on.
All of which means that his anti-Washington, anti-healthcare appeal, which was essentially a negative campaign about who he was not and what he opposed, now has to be transformed into a practice of pragmatic compromise and centrism unless, of course, he is hoping that GOP majorities will be restored in both Houses in the November 2010 mid-term elections. But even if that occurs, he still has to downplay his representative role in favor of his legislative obligations, at least until he is up for re-election. In a political moment where disenchantment and resentment is rampant throughout the electorate, that may turn out to be far harder than running a dark horse campaign against a lackluster opponent. But if he favours the representative role over the legislator role now that he is in office, he runs the risk of alienating his Senate colleagues and consequently be rendered hopelessly ineffectual in delivering on his promises. Either way, he has his work cut out for him, and his good looks are of no use in that context.
PS: Among many other things I will leave for the moment the conservative movement penchant for photogenic poster people over those with substantive political experience, or the potentially (seemingly counter-intuitive) negative implications this outcome has for any NZ-US trade deal.