Bilateral Commentary

Fair and Equal Representation?

Author:  Dr. Anthony Bryson

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.

With these words a new member of the House of Representatives makes his promise to the people of the United States that they will execute their duties in accordance with the constitution, and with the intent of the best interests of the country.  They make this promise in the presence of their peers, and with their hand on the book that they each claim to be so steadfast in following, and believing to hold their path to eternal salvation.  They make this promise in the presence of their God, making a pact they risk eternal damnation for breaking.  More importantly, they make this this promise to their constituents, the people who have entrusted these Representatives the right to act on behalf in support of their needs and desires, and in defense of their best interests, in hopes of establishing a more perfect union and a sustainable prosperity for all.

So why is it that these Representatives are shirking their responsibilities in making themselves accountable to their constituents through public discourse?  Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the Chairman of the House Oversight Committee, was roasted by his constituents for his hyper-partisan behavior in that leadership position.  Chaffetz has refused to investigate possible links between Russia and the Trump administration, after months of investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The gathering of his constituents was noisy and tension filled.  Chaffetz struggled to maintain control and was shouted down over many of his answers which relied heavily on easily recognizable talking points.  This same scenario has been repeated across the country, where representatives have been forced to face angry crowds of voters afraid of actions by the current administration, and the failure of their representative to be the check and balance to the power of the Executive. 

According to Legistorm, a clearinghouse for information on those serving on Capitol Hill, of the 292 Republican representatives in Congress, only 88 events had been scheduled to meet with constituents.  Of those 88, thirty-five were scheduled by Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin.  That would mean only 53 events were planned by the other 291 representatives.  Rather than face angry crowds of constituents Republican law makers have gone into hiding.  Those who have scheduled events have done everything in their power to insulate themselves from possibly having to answer tough questions, some going so far as to having controlled online teleconference events instead.  When Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar caught wind of possible protests at his upcoming town hall, he cowardly cancelled the event a day before the scheduled gathering.  Instead he arranged a teleconference where people could call in and listen to a discussion between Gosar and another Republican Congressman.  Listeners would submit questions, which of course would be filtered and allow for no follow up or response from muted virtual attendees.

As a response, constituents have taken it upon themselves to engage their representatives.  Citizens have started booking town hall events and inviting their Congressman.  But Republicans have taken to ignoring requests to attend these town hall events.  Darrell Issa, representative from California’s 49th District, ducked out on a town hall, claiming he has already scheduled a visit to a homeless shelter on the night in question.  This forced a group of his constituents to camp outside his office and wait for the elusive Congressman to make an appearance.  Issa did hold an impromptu question and answer session with those gathered, but at one point Mr. Issa saw his shadow and retreated to his office, signifying another six weeks of winter.

Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks scheduled a town hall at a local Baptist Church, but abruptly canceled the sold-out event.  Brooks claimed he would not meet with anyone until the Trump cabinet had been completely confirmed.  As it turns out, Mr. Brooks did indeed hold a gathering that evening, but only for members of his Huntsville Tea Party group.  When outsiders caught wind of this and entered the event it was quickly ended and the attendees, including the Congressman, scattered to the dark cover of the night. This left constituents confused, frustrated, and outraged.

But here’s the thing that should outrage voters the most – these Republicans don’t care!  Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton said as much during his town hall appearance in front of a raucous packed house of 2,000 people.  When asked about failing to represent Arkansas voters, instead following party line on issues, Mr. Cotton responded that the election decided the path and that he abides with the vote during the election, refusing to acknowledge that the temperature and attitude of the electorate can quickly change, especially in an election that was decided by such a small number of voters.  I give Mr. Cotton a lot of credit for standing in the lion’s den and taking the grilling that he did, but his response to this question lost the argument.

That is the problem with our democracy.  Our representatives, especially the Republicans, don’t care about governing.  They care only about one thing – power.  The cause of their common man is unimportant.  They only care about their own interests and serving those who share similar values.  When I say similar values I mean the bottom line value of their investments and the interest which accrues from those investments.  Protection of our country, our society, and most importantly those shared resources we all rely upon regardless of ideological beliefs – things like our environment – is not the primary philosophy of Republicans.  They may wrap their messages in the flag, or in emotional content meant to appeal to our patriotic nature, but the reality is they are making a sales pitch for those who sponsor their campaign to claim power.  Whether that be military contractors, pharmaceutical giants, the petrochemical industry, or just interests like the National Rifle Association, there representatives are bought and paid for.  They know who they owe, and they readily stack the budgets and laws in favor of their sponsors.  There are two casualties in this relationship - the American people and our democracy.

When our representatives fail to abide by their oath, they damage our democracy.  When they fail to uphold the constitution, the one they swear before God to safeguard, they are party to the downfall of the institutions on which our country and society is established.  The failure of these representatives to meet with their constituents is an affront to the social contract they have with the people they swear to speak for.  Representation is about doing what is best for your constituents, even when you personally disagree with those desires.

This issue of non-representation and wanting to duck dissenting opinion has begun to spin out of control.  In Arizona, State Senator John Kavangh, has introduced legislation that would give police authority to arrest anyone involved in a peaceful demonstration.  The bill would expand on the state’s organized crime law to include rioting – defined as any conduct that causes property damage – as a felony offense.  This would enact forfeiture law and allow law enforcement to seize properties of those arrested.  This is clearly an affront to the constitution and the first amendment.  By having this law on the books it discourages the exercise of right to assemble, our right to redress grievances, and our right to free speech.  But these are Republicans, and dissent only matters when it works in their favor and inhibits the structures of governance making for an even playing field for all people.

Dissent is part of our democracy and part of the process our representatives should be prepared for.  If they feel this is damaging to their feelings or sensibilities, and can’t deal with the exchange of information and ideas, especially the ones that don’t comply with their sponsor’s agenda, then maybe they should do the right thing and step aside from government.  If that oath of office, the one they swear to uphold, is just too much a hassle to comply with, then maybe they shouldn’t be in office and would be more comfortable in working for their sponsors rather than making a mockery of our democratic system and running interference to impose their master’s corporatist agenda.

Dr. Bryson is an adjunct faculty member at Fielding Graduate University, teaching classes in media and political psychologies.  He is the author of the book, The Trump Card: The Long Game of Discrediting Media and Influencing Elections.

Illustration courtesy of DonkeyHotey (DonkeyHotey/flickr)