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Them that serve

Fri, Mar 7th, 2008
Posted in Commentary

It must be difficult to be an elected government official. They must be responsive and accountable to various constituencies including themselves. These include the people whom they represent, which also includes people from their state or district who did not vote for them, members of their own party or caucus, and various special interest groups and lobbyists. Keeping all of these people happy or at least not courting their disfavor would be quite the balancing act.

Elected officials vote on many issues. At the state and federal levels most of the bills discussed and voted upon are low on the radar of the average citizen. While it is relatively easy to find out about the bills being considered most of us pay little attention. We are too busy with our everyday lives to spend time and energy tracking Congress or the State legislature. And, we have faith in our representatives that they will, for the most part, make the right decisions on our behalf.

There are, however, certain bills or pieces of legislation that receive considerable attention from the public and the media. These bills usually are the gut issues of the day such as taxes of different kinds, health care, abortion rights, transportation, foreign trade and policy, and funding and bonding issues. Most legislators probably spend considerable amounts of time learning what they can about the issues upon which they must vote. They hear from the people of their districts, interests groups, lobbyists, and others how these folks think they should vote. In addition, an elected official has to deal not only with their party or caucus position on an issue, but with their own conscience as well. When the call to vote comes what do they base their decision upon? Information and the will of special interest groups, what is best for the people for their district, their party's public position, or how they themselves feel about an issue?

The few legislators with whom I have spoken to over the years say when they campaign for their office they try to inform the voter what their positions will be on the major issues of the day. By being elected they then feel they have been given a mandate from those who have voted for them to adhere to these previously announced positions. Certainly, things change with time and what seemed right then may not be so right now. With appropriate explanation to their constituents a legislator could and perhaps even should change their position.

This them brings us to the six Republican legislators who voted with the Democrats to override Governor Pawlenty's veto of the transportation bill. Why would they vote the way they did? And why were they punished for doing so?

In a commentary piece published in the Star Tribune on February 27th, Neil Peterson, a Republican from Bloomington, outlined several reasons for his vote. Among them were the dismal conditions of the state's bridges and roads; that the rebuilding of this infrastructure will create many new jobs; that he believed the increase in the tax on gasoline is a user fee and therefore not regressive; and, as he said, believe it or not, constituents from his district urged him to vote for the override.

As we know, the vote to override the Governor's veto was along party lines with six House Republicans joining all of their Democrat colleagues. The response by the House Republican leadership was swift, and by the published accounts I read nearly unprecedented. The six offenders were stripped of their committee leadership positions and threatened that further action, such as no support for re-election, might follow. They were punished solely for not adhering to party line.

What happened to voting for the needs of the people of your district? What happens when party politics is more important than what is good for the state? When legislators are singled out and punished by their own party for doing what they consider to be the right vote, then the foundation of representative government is truly threatened. The good of the people must take precedence over the political positions of a Governor or his party.

Alan Lipowitz of Peterson is a regular Journal contributor.

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