Sunday, May 24, 2009
Congress is broken. The framers of the Constitution, building on nearly six centuries of parliamentary experience, situated Congress at the heart of the American constitutional system. Representative government was believed to be the purest, and yet workable, means of self-government. For the past twenty-five years, however, Congress has made a joke of that system, as it has trivialized and mocked any meaningful representation in the sense that the makers of the Constitution framed it.
That sense was best captured by Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the great English parliamentarian and statesman, whose work became the lodestar for the rising intellectual conservative movement fifty years ago. Burke was a contemporary of the founding fathers and a keen observer of the American scene. Today, however, he is not in fashion; in particular, when neo-conservatives and neo-liberals alike celebrate the historical expansion and maintenance of the American empire, they ignore Burke’s warning that “great empires and small minds go ill together.”
Burke had much to say about the role of peoples’ representatives. He acknowledged that representatives owed the “strictest union . . . and the most unreserved communication” to their constituents, yet he insisted that representatives possess “independent judgment and enlightened conscience.” A representative must strike a delicate balance, offering constituents “his judgment,” said Burke, while bearing in mind that “he betrays, instead of serving [them], if he sacrifices it to [their] opinion.” Burke recognized it is easy to “run into the perilous extremes of servile compliance or wild popularity.” Instead, the interest of the whole community must be pursued, not some local, individual interest, or a “momentary enthusiasm.”
In The Federalist No. 10, James Madison saw the danger of representatives pandering to “factions,” or groups “actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest adverse to . . . the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.” Burke and Madison alike would be appalled by Congress’s ready acquiescence to executive power....(Click for remainder.)