In our storied history as a republic and the world's oldest democracy, one of the most central, definitive, and perpetual debates regarding our structure of government has to do with what the proper role of a representative in Congress is. The question has been of great interest and discussion for political scientists, historians, and even members of Congress themselves. To tackle this vexing question, it is necessary to examine our founding documents, the intentions of the Founders, the literature and political history since then that has defined our nation, and the present reality of our country.
On the one hand, the Declaration of Independence is clear in its language that "governments are instituted among men." Further, the document plainly states that such governments can only "deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed." The republican language contained in Jefferson's crown jewel made clear that the new nation would be one where the people had a fundamental role in forging the new government. As such, the government of the United States would be one whose legitimacy came from the people and, in the document's echoing of John Locke, its representatives would retain the right to abolish the government if it became too abusive. The Founders understood the importance of government reflecting and carrying out the will of the people. It is for this reason that they crafted in the Constitution a people's body: the House of Representatives. In An Introduction to the American Legal System, the case is made that that the nation is most clearly a "representative democracy," as envisioned by James Madison. A nation in which, while "minority rights" are taken into account, "majority rule" does ultimately win the day.
On the other hand, the Founders also feared what Alexander Hamilton dubbed the overheated "passions of men." They understood and embraced the need to constrain the excess of special interests, potential mob rule, and what James Madison deemed the "tyranny of the majority" in The Federalist Papers. It is one of several reasons why the Founders created the Electoral College and a Senate in which Senators would be chosen by state legislators (both, by the way, in my opinion, wrong decisions) and why they ensured that there would be sufficient checks and balances in our system to prevent one party from becoming too powerful. It is for this reason that the United States is an indirect democracy. In the Founders' view, a republic in which the people, while electing their representatives and playing a role in forging their government, democratically granted legislators the power and privilege to make decisions on their behalf. Indeed, it would be the primary role of the legislator to remember he or she, though the representative of the people, should use good judgment, wisdom, research, and careful thought to make the best decision for the people -- even if the people disagreed with that choice. It is the kind of government that Edmund Burke advocated when he wrote that though constituents' concerns and desires "ought to have great weight with" a representative, he or she must ultimately use "his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, [and] his enlightened conscience" to make decisions when voting or crafting bills.
Beyond the questions of whether a representative should directly reflect the will of his or her constituents or whether he or she should lead them in the "right" direction - however the representative sees it - there are considerations as well. A representative must grapple with whether to take into greater consideration the interests and will of the people of his or her district or state or the interests and will of the entire country. Often, these may be in contention. For instance, a member of Congress from a district or state with a history of proud manufacturing may oppose a free trade agreement because he or she believes it would be against his or her district's interests even if he or she believes it may be, on whole, a net plus for the country. This issue causes some consternation for members of Congress because it is true that you are elected by the people of your district but, when you are sworn in, you take an oath for your country. Therefore, it is a delicate balancing act, to say the least, to perform the duties of your office if these interests were ever in contention.
Outside of this specific debate, there are also moral, ethical, constitutional, and pragmatic considerations to take into consideration as a representative. With regards to moral and ethical matters, these issues may arise when votes for military action are on the floor. War is ugly and horrific and members of Congress loathe the day that they hear a service member from their districts died in combat. If violence is ever justified, you won't hear it in the speeches of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. that members of Congress sometimes quote and, in their hearts, most representatives do prefer peaceful or diplomatic solutions. However, they must also take into account the "necessary evil" of war at times when negotiation is not possible and Thomas Aquinas' writings on "just war" have sometimes guided conflicted representatives on the eve of these votes.
Further, representatives must determine whether an action they are taking is consistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Ultimately, the Constitution is the supreme law of the land and members of Congress are sworn in on a sacred vow to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States." However, in passing legislation that stretched legal bounds in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress, in its desire to strengthen federal national security powers, passed legislation which constitutional law professors like GWU's own Orin Kerr believe have run afoul of the Fourth Amendment. Some members of Congress, like Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, and President Obama himself have openly expressed the difficulty of balancing the desire to protect the country against terrorist threats with the necessity of abiding by the Constitution. It is crucial to find a proper balance and it is a task Congress is tackling right now as senators like Patrick Leahy seek to reform NSA surveillance so the agency can still search for threats while protecting basic privacy rights. Lastly, pragmatic considerations have to play a role as well. Representatives cannot always get what they want or everything they want in a piece of legislation. They must be willing to compromise when necessary to secure the votes for passage of a bill but it is also important that they not capitulate or abandon their core principles. Forging such a path can be difficult for some members but even the most ideologically rigid find a way, such as former Rep. Dennis Kucinich. A stalwart liberal, Kucinich considered voting against Obamacare in March 2010 because it was insufficiently liberal. After much persuasion (on Air Force One and at a campaign-style rally with him) from Obama, Kucinich chose to vote for the bill. It did not include some progressive provisions he fought for but, after careful thought, he chose (rightly so) to vote for the bill because it got the country one step closer to affordable, universal health insurance coverage.
Perhaps nobody better articulated and explained the most important of these aforementioned conflicts than President John F. Kennedy. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, JFK tackles this question of the role of a representative head on and comprehensively so. Ultimately, Kennedy argues for representatives making "hard and unpopular decisions," if they are the right decisions for the country, and displaying "political courage" for the betterment of the country. The entire book outlines stories of senators Kennedy rightfully believes bravely displayed this courage, such as Senator Daniel Webster who backed the Compromise of 1850. JFK excellently summarizes what the proper balance ought to be in terms of representing the will of the people vs. fighting for what is right, even if it's unpopular. "Most people assume," Kennedy writes, "the primary responsibility of a Senator is to represent the views of his state." However, JFK asserts that it is "difficult to accept such a narrow view of the role of United States Senator -- a view that assumes the people...sent me to Washington to serve merely as a seismograph to record shifts in popular opinion." Indeed, Kennedy argues that the "voters selected us, in short, because they had confidence in our judgment and our ability to exercise that judgment from a position where we could determine what were their own best interests, as part of the nation's interest."
Some voters and pundits may find JFK's view harsh and politically poisonous but that isn't necessarily the case; voters actually reward politicians who fight for their principles over navigators of public opinion. One need not look further than the last election when Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown in Massachusetts on a platform of strong regulation of the financial industry vs. someone who carefully tried to gauge the public attitude just to win reelection. Even at the national level, the voters registered a judgment of preferring principle over sticking your finger in the wind when they reelected Obama, who stuck with policies like health care reform despite public uneasiness about the Affordable Care Act, over Romney, Mr. "Etch-a-Sketch," in the words of his own senior advisor. In the end, Kennedy is exactly right that representatives and senators must "on occasion lead, inform, correct, and sometimes even ignore constituent opinion" if it means "exercis[ing] fully that judgment for which we were elected." At the same time though, he is not dismissive of the people and he does embrace the necessity of compromise. The absolute best quotes from his thesis on these matters are contained in the following link and I highly recommend reading them: http://www.jfklibrary.org/Education/Profile-in-Courage-Essay-Contest/Curriculum-Ideas/Curriculum-Appendix-2.aspx
President Kennedy was right. This country is and ought to remain an indirect democracy. Yes, it should be a nation in which the voters must have the right to elect their leaders - including the President and U.S. Senators, hence my opposition to the Electoral College and support for the 17th Amendment guarantee of direct election of U.S. Senators. However, just as important, it ought to always be a country in which it is the responsibility of those leaders to make informed decisions for the interests of the country they were elected to serve. For a representative to claim otherwise would be an abdication of his or her responsibility to the country. It is wrong to chastise or totally disregard the concerns and voices of constituents but it would be a greater disrespect to them if a representative voted in a way that ultimately hurt their interests even if it was temporarily unpopular. Maybe not immediately, or even in the next election, but the people will then ultimately respect you more as a representative as well.