The protests last Friday at our Representative Rodney Davis’ office in Champaign again highlighted the key question – does he have an obligation to interact with the voters in a public forum, or is it just fine for him to have short meetings with small groups of constituents now and then.
The question is important as it deals with the fundamentals of our democracy: a lot is at stake.
Davis argues in defense of his current practice in terms of efficiency – he claims that short communications with small groups are a better way for the people to tell him what concerns them. The public meetings, unruly and loud, are therefore inefficient.
These view assumes that the information flows from the citizens to the representative. Quoting Davis,
“meeting with individuals and talking to them, in a face-to-face and interactive way, is a much better way to understand, how my constituents feel about a certain issue.”
This is a stand a benevolent vizier or Soviet apparatchik could take, meeting with the populace to collect their grievances, so that the Divan, or Central Committee could act on the issues. Just like any “good” Party functionary, Mr. Davis seem to see various handouts (from large, lake Farm Bill, to small, like dedication of Route 66) as his main accomplishments in the Congress.
To us, free people of this still free country, this position looks parochial and running against the great American democratic tradition. It is an enormous misuse of the democratic process to elect someone to the Congress to push for a specific pork-barrel project on our behalf. (We have -still, – plenty of channels to communicate grievances or desiderata.) The key function of a Congressperson is very different.
It is to impact the federal policy.
This is the first and main function of a US Representative, and the one Mr. Davis wants us to forget about. In his world, the policy is set by his Party leadership, just like it was in the former Soviet Union. In a democracy, a member of a representative body holds a set of views and positions and is elected on those. In Mr. Davis’ world, a Representative “fights”, that is pushes for some special interests.
And for those “fights”, public discussions are indeed inefficient. They are pretty useless as a channel for the citizens to complain about one issue or the other.
They are the only way, however, to uncover what policies a candidate for an office favors, and will pursue on our behalf. We should be clear:
public meetings are not about Mr. Davis learning something from his voters. It is about his constituents being able to examine positions of Mr. Davis.
And this is exactly what makes him nervous, not the made-up fear of being roughened-up by U of I professoriat or burning yearning for efficiency. The real reason Mr. Davis is afraid of a public discussion – a quintessential feature of American democracy, – is that a public discussion is the right platform to uncover policy positions of a candidate.
Understanding policy is difficult in the best circumstances – it involves knowledge of the background data, statistics, history, ideological and economic arguments and a great deal of tradeoffs. Understanding someone’s intended policy requires an extensive back and forth with follow up questions and cross-examination of the claims and statements. It requires, in essence, a team of citizens who are committed to finding out how the candidate for an office perceives an issue, and how these views will be acted upon. And it requires an attentive audience of citizens, hundred of eyes and ears tuned to what their future Congressman think.
This is what Mr. Davis is afraid of. The short, small group meetings are efficient, indeed – efficient in denying this examination. Efficient in protecting barely camouflaged lies. Efficient in obscuring the real agenda.
Mr. Davis office hours small group meetings are efficient in helping his Party to betray us. We should stop playing along.