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Having spent 20 years working for the United States Congress, I would say that Congress often goes too far in trying to reflect the will of the public, often at the expense of the broader public interest.
One of the problems is fundamental to the way the federal government, particularly the legislative branch, is structured. The authors of the United States Constitution wanted the public to be well-represented by its elected officials, but they also recognized that at least part of the legislative branch needed to be shielded to some degree from constant pressure to represent the often narrow interests of constituencies. That is why there is a House of Representatives, whose members must run for reelection every two years, and a Senate, whose members only run every six years. Members of the House are expected to more closely represent the views of their constituents. Senators, on the other hand, are expected to better balance the interests of the country at large with those of their constituents.
There are 435 members of the House of Representatives. These congressmen and women each represent approximately 500,000 American citizens. That means that there are many diverse constituencies being represented by elected officials. And those officials take their responsibilities to their congressional districts very seriously. That is a major reason for the enormous number of "earmarks" that have historically been put into spending bills by members of Congress -- so-called "pork barrel" additions to the budget intended to benefit interests in each district. These additions often involve added dollars for road construction and repairs, construction of public buildings like post offices and libraries, funding for particular industries located in the districts of officials serving on particular committees, and so on. By the time the dollar amounts for all of these projects earmarked for individual congressional districts are added up, the total is usually over $10 billion per year.
While it is easy to write these additions off as the result of "special interests," it is important to keep in mind that we are all special interests when it comes time to request financial support from the government for those activities or projects we deem important. The minute we contact our congressman or woman with the request for legislation or funding for that which we deem important to the greater good, we become a special interest.
As mentioned, it is often a difficult challenge for elected officials to balance the national interest with that of their districts. Frequently, politicians will blur the distinction between the two, often firmly believing that what is good for their district is good for the country. This is particularly true in areas like agricultural subsidies and military weapon systems. "That fighter jet is built in my district, but it will defend the entire country, so it is essential. It just so happens to provide jobs for my constituents."
While the answer to this may seem obvious, it is really rather complicated and is ultimately quite subjective.
On the one hand, it seems clear that Congress reflects the will of the people. The people vote for every member of Congress very directly. The members have to maintain the support of the people if they are to be reelected. For these reasons, Congress would seem to reflect the popular will.
However, there are those who would argue that Congress does not represent the will of the people. They would claim that Congress has been captured by special interests and that it represents the will of these special interests and not the will of the people. This is one reason why Congress has abysmal approval ratings.
The reality is rather complicated. On some issues, there really is no “will of the people” for Congress to reflect. The people might not have very well-formed opinions about certain issues and so it is hard for Congress to reflect that will. Sometimes, this will make it look like Congress is disregarding the will of the people. On other issues, individual members of Congress are clearly acting as their constituents would wish.
Overall, it is very hard to say whether Congress reflects the will of the people because that would entail determining what the will of the people is on each issue and then measuring how closely their member of Congress reflect that will. We can say that Congress is certainly set up to reflect the will of the people because the people vote for Congress. However, we cannot say exactly how often Congress reflects the popular will.
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