Delegates and trustees
By Roy Christman
Sen. Pat Toomey is taking heat for his vote on the second impeachment of Donald Trump. A number of county Republican parties have already censured Toomey, and David Bell, chair of the Washington County Republicans, made national news for his criticism of the senator. Bell said of Toomey, “We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to do the right thing or whatever he said he was doing. We sent him there to represent us.”
Bell was expressing what is often called the delegate theory of representation. This theory holds that an elected representative has a duty to reflect the wishes of her or his constituents. If the representative happens to disagree with the opinions of the voters, that representative is duty-bound to ignore personal feelings and mirror those voters.
Edmund Burke, a member of the British parliament from Ireland during the American Revolution, enunciated a different view known as the trustee theory of representation. Burke argued that his experience and judgment meant that he would vote his conscience, and his constituents would benefit from his knowledge and understanding.
Most legislators do not follow either of these theories exclusively. A major issue with the delegate theory is that a legislator may not know the opinion of the voters, or may be swayed by a loud minority, or may feel that she or he should represent all of the people in the district, not just supporters.
Toomey, for example, may feel an obligation to represent not only the Republicans of Washington County, but the Democrats, Independents, Greens and Libertarians of Pennsylvania. Since he is a United States senator, he may even feel a responsibility to citizens in the other 49 states.
A major problem with the trustee theory is that any legislator who consistently ignores the “will of the people” will probably be a one-term legislator. Generally, most legislators will try to follow their constituents’ opinions, but they may feel strongly about an issue of conscience and be willing to defy those constituents. The voters could feel betrayed, but they might also feel admiration for political courage.
John F. Kennedy wrote “Profiles in Courage,” a book about members of Congress who voted according to what they considered their moral duty and are now held up as models of rectitude.
Two other theories of representation should be mentioned, although most textbooks ignore them. One is the “errand boy (or girl)” theory. Legislators who follow this model go to Harrisburg or Washington to help with missing Social Security checks or wrangle grants for fire companies. They are often very popular with their constituents but seldom play a leadership role. All legislators, of course, try to help their constituents, but the errand boy will see that role as paramount.
Finally there are the politicos. The politico role is the most cynical. Decisions usually are made with one concern - will this vote help me to get re-elected? A politico may vote to assist a major campaign donor or a vocal interest group without regard for either constituents or conscience.
Toomey, of course, no longer has to choose any of these roles. As of January 2023, he will be retiring from the U.S. Senate.
Roy Christman, Ph.D., taught American Government at San Jose State University before retiring to Carbon County.