Should legislators vote their conscience? Or the way their voters want? Marjorie Margolies and Edmund Burke say “conscience”

On the eve of a historic vote in the House on health care reform Republicans aren’t conflicted. They’ll all vote ‘no.’ But on the Democratic side it’s not so easy. Some members who favor reform are in districts that poll strongly against; some members who oppose reform are in districts that poll in favor. Both groups are conflicted: vote their conscience or vote their constituents?

Marjorie Margolies argues, in an op-ed in Thursday’s Washington Post, that members should vote their conscience. She’s a voice worth paying attention to, since her vote of conscience in favor of President Clinton’s budget proposal is generally considered to have led directly to her defeat in the 1994 election. But if you think Margolies’ advice just serves her desire to get health care reform passed, consider what the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke had to say on the subject in 1774.

Burke’s Speech To The Electors Of Bristol was well known to Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founding Fathers. Many political scientists consider it one of the documents underlying our Constitution. Burke told his constituents that a representative owes them “his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”


Four years after the speech Burke’s constituents urged him to oppose a motion in Parliament to open up trade with Ireland. Burke resisted their demands and said:

“If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their suffrages at an ensuing election, it will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong”

He was defeated at the next election. As was Margolies, 216 years later. Both took the ethical path, doing their duty rather than taking care of their reelection prospects.

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4 Responses to “Should legislators vote their conscience? Or the way their voters want? Marjorie Margolies and Edmund Burke say “conscience””

  1. Bermuda Bob Says:

    I have long lamented that America does not realize the form of government we actually have … it is a Representative Republic, where, our representatives are supposed to vote the way their constituencies wish them to …

    That REALLY why Bob Bork is not a Supreme Court Justice … because he espoused a return to our true form of government !!! His book on what happened to him is a good read for anyone brave enough to desire to know the real story !!!

    Unfortunately, I believe the present system is so corrupted that the only alternative to return us to our original form of government would be to install “issue and referendum” …

    Cheers & Ciao !!!
    Bermuda Bob

  2. John Spady Says:

    But Bob, while I am interested in direct and public participation in government I can’t see how any representative in a Representative Republic can “vote the way their constituencies wish them to” when their constituencies are not of one mind on any issue. We are individuals and not lemmings of one mind.

    I expect my elected leaders to have a mind… and to use it — to learn about an issue as much as possible… and have access to information than I may be unaware of myself.

    But I also want my elected leaders to inform me of the reasonings of their decisions so I can judge for myself if I can agree with them or not — and at the very least I want to respect their decision to act in good conscience even though I may disagree.

    I will await the next election cycle for me tally up all the “good and bad decisions” (from my perspective) and make my own individual decision in good conscience.

    Thanks for your thoughts about all of this. It’s an interesting issue.

  3. Ethics Bob Says:

    You agree with Edmund Burke. Good for you.

  4. Tim Pawlenty announces for President, grabs third rail of Iowa politics, earns mythical Edmund Burke Award. « Ethics Bob Says:

    […] Burke told his constituents 237 years ago that a representative owes them “his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving […]

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