Legislators versus representatives (or, how Scott Brown is about to get schooled).

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.

28 thoughts on “Legislators versus representatives (or, how Scott Brown is about to get schooled).

  1. Thanks for that interesting perspective. Have you any feeling for how new Senators would be trained?. Do they have mentors, are there a diverse range factions that they can choose from, or can they be loners?. Presumably he will want to ensure he is visible on the national stage as well as local.

    If he wants to become prominent, how long will it take for him to be accepted ( in Terms served? ).

  2. Bruce: My understanding is the senior members of his party will mentor him. He will also be given advice by the RNC on the how and who of office staffing (including issues such as “cloture” and who is allowed to enter first into the Senate elevators), although he will obviously bring his own close aides from MA. The trouble with mentoring is that it leads to dependency on the mentor and his/her projects and clout, which in turn leads the junior member to often adopt positions contrary to his/her representative role and which make him/her seem like the puppet of the senior member. In Brown’s case, should he fall under the sway of a more conservative GOP Senator, then he could be seen as moving away (in fact, betraying) the moderate principles he advocated while in state office and during the campaign. Two terms (12 years) usually allows people to get up to speed and comfortable in Senate office, which also allows them to develop seniority as retirement and election defeat take their toll on senior members.

    One big problem for Brown is that the other Senator from MA, John Kerry, is very senior and very hostile to him, which means that even GOP senators are unlikely to seriously cross swords with Kerry on areas where he and Brown are in opposition (including healthcare, where Kerry has taken over Ted Kennedy’s mantle as a “reasonable centrist” on the issue, while Brown appears to have taken his talking points from Glen Beck).

  3. People are on the right in the US are talking about a Petraeus/Palin ticket, and then potentially some form of soft military dictatorship using the unitary executive theory…

    How potentially realistic are either of those two outcomes?

  4. People are on the right in the US are talking about a Petraeus/Palin ticket, and then potentially some form of soft military dictatorship using the unitary executive theory…

    Probably a lot, since the Supreme Court just massively relaxed bans on corporate political donations.

    It’s a funny place.

  5. Doesn’t sound likely to me, but even so, if the Democrats can’t beat back such a campaign by standing on America’s bedrock values, they don’t deserve to run a school board, let alone a country.


  6. It’s not even confirmed that Petraeus is a Republican. There’s a lot of love for him from the Party, but it’s less than clear that he reciprocates.

    Palin would not be Veep again. Nobody ever runs for the Vice Presidency on two separate tickets. It would lead to the application of the ‘loser’ tag. If she re-enters Presidential politics, it will be as a Presidential candidate.

    But even if we did end up with Petraeus/Palin (or Petraeus/whoever), why would that be a ‘soft military dictatorship’?

  7. Probably a lot, since the Supreme Court just massively relaxed bans on corporate political donations.

    Ag – the Supreme Court decisions probably matters very little. There is a very good paper called \Why is there so Little Money in US politics\ by Stephen Ansolabehere, John de Figueireido, and James Snyder http://web.mit.edu/polisci/research/representation/CF_JEP_Final.pdf

    The abstract is below – they go on to provide possible answers, e.g. money matters to a certain level but at x point the additional dollar has little value, money does get you a little but no more, that little could be access, but access doesn’t not necessarily translate into change as there is other competors for access etc

    Thirty years ago, Gordon Tullock posed a provocative puzzle: considering the value of public policies at stake and the reputed influence of campaign contributions in policy-making, why is there so little money in U.S. politics? In this paper, we argue that campaign contributions are not a form of policy-buying, but are rather a form of political participation and consumption. We summarize the data on campaign spending, and show through our descriptive statistics and our econometric analysis that individuals, not special interests, are the main source of campaign contributions. Moreover, we demonstrate that campaign giving is a normal good, dependent upon income, and campaign contributions as a percent of GDP have not risen appreciably in over 100 years – if anything, they have probably fallen. We then show that only one in four studies from the previous literature support the popular notion that contributions buy legislators’ votes. Finally, we illustrate that when one controls for unobserved constituent and legislator effects, there is little relationship between money and legislator votes. Thus, the question is not why there is so little money politics, but rather why organized interests give at all. We conclude by offering potential answers to this question.

    Otherwise to Pablo – another good post, it is useful to remember that to a large extent the US federal government structure as set up by the Founding fathers was designed to moderate influence by any one individual/group – the founding father were generally deeply schooled in Greek/Roman history (not forgetting the glorious revolution either) and sought to prevent the rise of \first/great men\ e.g. a Caesar, Pompey, Sulla. At the same time it was also designed to ensure that rule/abuse of the masses was constrained (role of \wise\ Senate to constrain plebium congress). The Bill of Rights/constitution/supreme court also fits into this framework to provide a safeguard against tyranny of the masses by protecting certain rights of man.

  8. I have to agree with Hugh on the Petreus angle. From my experience working at the Pentagon and at other commands, flag-rank officers often are surprisingly liberal in their political views. Not only does the military have a “socialist” system of welfare, housing and medical care for its troops, but it has been the leading affirmative action agent in the entire country for half a century. Moreover, once an officer gets to flag rank (O-7), they tend to see the bigger picture quite clearly and are therefore less hawkish when it comes to projecting US force. Petreus, as a counter-insurgency guy, is more attuned than most to “hearts and minds” issues, which means that he would not necessarily sit comfortably with the Wall Streeters and corporate cronies who dominate the GOP. Even Colin Powell, the black poster boy of the GOP, finally gave up on them and endorsed Obama.

    Even if he were to be elected president, I am not sure that Petreus or any other high ranking officer would support a “soft dictatorship” option, given that they are professionally sworn to uphold not only the constitution but the primacy of civilian rule and the separation of powers. Dwight Eisenhower is a good example in that regard.

    I also agree with Hugh about Palin. She is going to go for the top job or not at all (I am hoping that she will in fact get the nod just to watch the spectacle). More interesting is what Mitt Romney will do now that Brown is in. As MA governor Romney had a moderate record much like the one Brown developed, so the question is whether this turn of events raises the chances that a moderate like Romney can be the best opponent for Obama in 2012 (rather than the bimbo).

  9. I think the Eisenhower analogy is apt, Pablo (It was what I was going to bring up if anybody claimed Petraeus would be a military dictator because he’s a military officer). I’m not entirely sure that Petraeus is actually likely to be a liberal – I suppose he might be, it’s really rather hard to tell, since he has studiously avoided commenting on political issues. I presume he is a fairly ambitious guy, so I could certainly see him accepting the Republicans’ nomination for the Presidency if it was offered to him – rather like Eisenhower did. But if this happened, and if he was elected, he might well govern based on his own instincts with little regard for the party he ostensibly belonged to – again, like Eisenhower did. In Eisenhower’s case it happened that his instincts did basically align with those of his party, if not entirely on every issue (but then, which politician’s ever do? Even Bush had substantial policy disagreements with his party, particularly re: immigration).

    It might be tempting for Republicans to put somebody with more staunchly party-conservatives alongside Petraeus in the Veep’s spot, in the hope of keeping him to the straight and narrow, rather as Quayle and Palin were intended to do to Bush Snr and McCain, respectively. But such a person would have difficulty doing so.

    However if Petraeus isn’t available, I would say that somebody like Mitt Romeny would be an appealing choice to the Republicans, as the voice of the party’s moderate wing. He would also probably end up with a hard right Veep. Unfortunately I cannot see Romney winning an election in 2012 – he would be utterly destroyed by Obama in any public debate.

    Ultimately I think the Republicans’ best bet would be Huckabee, who can appeal to the conservative base but doesn’t have as high negatives outside that base as Palin or any of the various Palin-wannabes out there.

  10. Pablo, for what it’s worth Westen regarded Romney as the most credible Republican candidate for the 2008 race, and he failed at the primaries predominantly because he was poorly coached and managed (including being permitted to shoot his mouth off).

    My instinct is that 2012 will see an all-out tea-party-conservative charge led by Palin and an existing senior office-holder who was not substantially involved in the 2008 race — can’t quite think who, as yet, there’s quite a field. I think such a ticket would be very strong against a Democratic party which has a track record of failing to get its candidates re-elected, but my instinct is that they would be inclined to bring the crazy just a little bit too much to make it work.

    I don’t see Brown having any sort of opening there, but if Palin fails, I see moderate or ‘compassionate’ republicans looking to reinvent their electoral fortunes, which could provide an opportunity for the likes of Brown and Jindal. And this chap Pawlenty from Minnesota I hear a lot about.

    This all presupposes that ObamaCare passes in some recognisable form, though. All bets are off if it doesn’t.


  11. Ultimately I think the Republicans’ best bet would be Huckabee, who can appeal to the conservative base but doesn’t have as high negatives outside that base as Palin or any of the various Palin-wannabes out there.

    Huckabee might have ruined his chances after the Maurice Clemmons fiasco and will be vulnerable to claims he’s soft on crime.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see a major third candidate in the next presidential election. The teabaggers will be pissed if a moderate takes the GOP nomination. Maybe Palin really will go rogue.

  12. Agreed that the Clemmons thing will come back to haunt Huckabee, if only in the primaries. (I can’t see Obama credibly zinging him on it, although some of his surrogates might)

    I can’t see the Tea Party decisively breaking with the Republicans to the extent of endorsing a third party candidate.

    I also don’t think Jindal is a plausible moderate candidate – he has governed Louisiana in an extremely fiscally conservative manner and is socially conservative on issues like guns, gay marriage etc etc. He’s definitely way to the right of Brown.

    The idea of a more experienced and moderate counterweight to Palin is quite likely, although it’s equally possible that a prospective Palin candidacy would involve doubling-down on the movement-conservative thing. If the former course was taken somebody like Haley Barbour would be the go-to guy; if the latter, perhaps this Florida guy who’s potentially going to leapfrog Charlie Crist to the Senate seat. (Not least because bringing Florida into the Republican column would be bloody helpful)

  13. *Fear*

    I’m not sure Cheney would still be a good campaigner. He’d be no good at kissing babies – he would probably try to eat them.

    Although they could send him to Afghanistan. He’s a mean guy, and the Taliban would fear him. The guy even shoots his friends.

    I can’t see Palin playing second fiddle to anyone. Her enormous ego won’t allow it. Look what she did to McCain’s campaign. So if she runs she’ll want top billing.

    As lousy a time as Obama is having, no obvious candidate has yet emerged who would potentially unite the GOP and who Obama wouldn’t shred during the debates.

  14. I think at least electorally Obama is likely to parallel Clinton – he will face major setbacks and a general concession to the ideology of conservatism throughout his first turn, but a combination of centrism (rationalised as a fulfilment of his campaign promises for ‘moving beyond partisanship’) and excellent electioneering will ensure that he is triumphant in 2012, with conservatives wondering why, in a country that is so obviously enthused about conservative policies, their candidate didn’t fire. All sounds pretty familiar, huh?

  15. Hugh, I think you’re dead right. Obama resembles Clinton more than anyone in US politics since Clinton — more even than Hillary does. Even his campaign narrative was very similar.

    Clinton is also the only postwar Democrat to win a second term, and even came out of impeachment looking better than he went in. Not a bad bloke to emulate.


  16. Well, in terms of electoral success, yes, Clinton is definitely the sort of guy any politician would want to emulate.

    In terms of policy success, however, Clinton is not a very attractive model.

  17. PeterQ: If you got something out of it, then the pleasure is mine. Thanks for reading KP.

  18. Ag – the Supreme Court decisions probably matters very little. There is a very good paper called \Why is there so Little Money in US politics\ by Stephen Ansolabehere, John de Figueireido, and James Snyder http://web.mit.edu/polisci/research/representation/CF_JEP_Final.pdf

    That conveniently leaves out the millions spent on K Street.

    It also leaves out an interesting fact. Canada has 10% of the US population, yet spending on the last Canadian Federal Election was much less per person than in the US.

    Which country has historically had the better government? Canada has historically had very good government, and this even though a large part of the country is continually threatening to secede. The US has one of the worst governments of any democratic country. No British, Canadian or New Zealand electorate would put up with the level of incompetence of the US federal government.

    So even if the level of spending is less than some hack economist might expect, it does not follow that the effect is not detrimental.

    One wonders whether you have ever seen a US presidential election up close. “Weird” doesn’t come close to describing it. It’s certainly nothing like a New Zealand election, which is positively intellectual by comparison.

    I think at least electorally Obama is likely to parallel Clinton.

    I very much doubt this. Obama’s race will make it much harder for him to capture as much of the white working class vote as Clinton did. If the effects of the recession are still in play by 2012, he’s toast.

  19. You know, I was listening to Mike Moore the other day (it was only a soundbite on the news, I hasten to add) aand he mentioned that the United States isn’t a parliamentary democracy where an agreement with the government of the day meant you had a guaranteed deal. Instead, you had to negotiate with congress and the senate and all the myriad lobby groups and try and convince everyone they get the biggest piece of pie.

    To me, that encapsulates the crisis of the American political system. For 230 years the United States has been able to exploit the seemingly limitless resources of it’s continent to get internal political agreement by simply giving everyone what they want.

    Now they are bumping up against the stoppers of their continent’s bounty, their schlerotic political system is failing to cope.

  20. Probably a lot, since the Supreme Court just massively relaxed bans on corporate political donations.

    Corporate spending. Not corporate donations.

    Corporations (and unions, etc.) still cannot donate to candidates. They can now, however, run what we we call “third party” campaigns, or donate to others who run third party campaigns.

  21. So let’s guess health insurers and banks will be funding campaigns right up to the congressional elections in November (which should suit the US media conglomerates just fine).

  22. Once again, thanks for an interesting discussion. Some more questions from somebody who knows little of US political structure.

    Is the 6 year term of senators too long for the pace of 21st century political life?. 6 years is a very long time for most people ( Bush beat Kerry? ).

    It seems, to me, that rational legislation ( eg national harmonisation of educational standards ) is killed by the phase difference of elections – as well as the nature of the different federal assemblies/houses.

    Do the voters deliberately understand and balance the different roles, or do they vote according to immediate priorities/perceptions?.

    Would voters expect their senator to be aware of and take notice of state legislature opinions, or do they vote for them as spoilers/enablers of lower house political actions?.

  23. Bruce:

    Without getting into details, the basic idea (in answer to points 1 and 2) as I understand it is that the US political system was crafted by the founding fathers to be a complex system of checks and balances. So the electoral system has 2 year terms for Reps, 4 year terms for Prez and 6 year terms for Senators. That makes for turnover every two years in both houses with a presidential election thrown in the middle and on to of the congressional races. As mentioned above, the idea is to mediate the populist impulses of Reps with the more long-term views of Senators. The trouble, as I see it, is that this system was put into place in a pre-capitalist state in which things like slavery and denial of female suffrage were still in force, and in which the founders could not foresee the impact of corporate mass media, big money lobbying and campaign fund-raising, automatic weapons (with regard to the 2nd amendment) etc. So it may be archaic and dysfunctional.

    With regard to point 3–the masses vote on their immediate and short term interests, pure and simple. There may be long-term strategic voters and those who vote strictly on principle, but the majority do not.

    Point 4–Senators have to take state-wide interests into account, so they do in fact pay attention to the state legislature and state elections. It gives them an idea of where the voting centre is in their respective states, which is what they are elected to represent (unlike Reps).

    This is just sketch but I hope that it offers some limited guidance on the issues you raise.

  24. Thanks for the brief, easily understandable, summary. That’s a large mass, high-inertia, democratic system.

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