from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

What Do Elected Officials Owe Voters?

December 11, 2012

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What do elected officials owe voters? The debate over the theory of representation is an old and distinguished one, asking whether elected representatives should vote as they believe their constituents would wish or vote as they think best.

But this assumes that the elected parliamentarians stick around long enough to vote at all. In recent weeks we’ve seen examples of a newer phenomenon: the person who is elected and then walks away.

The worst example is that of Jo Ann Emerson, re-elected just five weeks ago in Missouri. Within days of that victory she quit, announcing that she will resign from Congress to head up the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Her resignation statement  says "I am going to miss the constituents I work with every day, the thousands of small business owners, compassionate families, community leaders, students and servicemembers who define the character of Southern Missouri....I am not leaving Congress because I have lost my heart for service -- to the contrary -- I see a new way to serve." This is pretty much nonsense, as the Washington Post pointed out in a sharp editorial that noted how much more money she will be earning in her "new way to serve."

The case of Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina got more attention. He is leaving the Senate to lead the Heritage Foundation, where like Ms. Emerson his salary will go up by a factor of five or ten. Mr. DeMint was re-elected in 2010 and has four more years to serve in his term. When he was re-elected in 2010 he said he would not run again in 2016--but gave no hint as a candidate that he would not serve out the term he was seeking.

It may well be that Ms. Emerson can do a lot of good at the Cooperative Association and that Mr. DeMint will serve the conservative cause well at Heritage. Nevertheless there is something deeply offensive about walking away from the job you so ardently sought from the voters. That act diminishes the significance of elections and indeed of representative democracy, for the citizen elevated to the legislature by his or her peers is saying the whole thing is just not very important. Certainly the two appear to feel no strong obligation to the voters, or to their district or state. It’s not as if they were going home to run for governor, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that if these new jobs paid not one cent more than their congressional offices they would not have resigned.

Emerson said "I did not go seeking this opportunity, but I am excited about the new challenge it offers" and presumably DeMint did not go seeking Heritage either. In both cases the member of Congress realized this opportunity would disappear if he or she served out his term. That ought to have been the end of it, but in both cases they dismissed their obligations quickly and without apparent soul-searching.

That’s wrong. In recent years  there have been many pledges made about term limits--candidates pledging to leave office rather than run again after a certain amount of time. Perhaps in the next round of elections we should seek a different pledge: to do the job they’re seeking, to serve out the term, and not to hop to a better paying opportunity no matter how attractive the "new way to serve."

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