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Congress should vote its conscience
By Lee Hamilton
Lee Hamilton large
Lee Hamilton
Around the time Congress convened this year, a Republican member of the House reflected to a newspaper reporter that there was a silver lining to the party’s new minority status.
“You’re freer to vote your conscience,” the legislator said.
It was a revealing comment — not about being a Republican, but because it offered a glimpse into the fact members of Congress often feel unable to vote the way they’d really like.
Decision-making on Capitol Hill is a perpetual wrestling match, with members’ own instincts, analysis and judgment pitted against a daunting array of other claimants to their vote.
This is especially true when they’re in the majority, and so feel some responsibility to help their leadership govern, or when they share a party label with the president and want to help him look in control. Sometimes their inclinations run in tandem, but sometimes they don't, which explains why some Republicans are feeling a sudden sense of liberation these days, while some Democrats feel more constrained than they did a year ago.
Republicans and Democrats alike also listen to important campaign contributors; to community leaders whom they rely on for guidance; and, of course, to their constituents, who more than anyone else have a claim to their representatives’ attention.
All of these, as worthwhile as their views may be, can stand in the way of voting one’s conscience.
There are some people who go to Congress precisely because they want to be loyal party members or support their president or vote as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal or conservative. For them, there’s nothing especially complicated about deciding how to cast their votes.
But I would venture that the majority of Senators and House members find voting to be a sometimes agonizing effort at sifting through competing demands, including the demands of their own inner compass.
Imagine, for example, being a Republican House member faced with the non-binding resolution condemning the President's handling of the war in Iraq. Many of them were deeply torn, miserably unhappy with the war but equally unhappy at the prospect of voting against the White House and their party leadership. However they voted, it was not an easy decision.
Legislators often resolve these conflicts by acting as they deem the occasion warrants — sometimes as an agent of their constituents' will, sometimes as party leaders demand, sometimes in consultation with residents of their district but exercising their own judgment, and sometimes according to the dictates of their own conscience.
This last approach is exactly the one that the British statesman Edmund Burke took up in his famous “Speech to the Electors of Bristol” in 1774. An elected representative, he argued, owes his constituents “his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience,” and ought not sacrifice them “to any man, or to any set of men living.” Indeed, Burke went on, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Most members of Congress, I think, would agree with Burke. Their jobs, after all, consist — or, at least, ought to consist — of studying the issues before them, weighing the alternatives, and thinking through the consequences of each. And I know, from my own experience and that of others, that at the end of a career on Capitol Hill, a member feels proudest of those votes, speeches and times he or she has acted according to conscience and done the right thing in the face of countervailing pressures.
There is a message in this, one that I think the founders would endorse: A representative democracy works best when representatives act according to their best judgment. Anything else constrains the Congress from giving full consideration to the collective wisdom and experience of its members. Shakespeare, I think, said it best in Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
and it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
That’s good advice for living, and splendid advice for anyone hoping to do the best job he or she can in Congress. It might even give us better government.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
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