Congress Is Not a Parliament

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President Joe Biden delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 28, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via Reuters)

“Democrats in Oil Country Worried by Party’s Natural-Gas Agenda,” reads a headline in today’s Wall Street Journal. The article talks about Democrats in competitive districts reliant on the energy industry being harmed by the national party’s energy policy, which often paints the energy industry as the boogeyman.

There are three crucial seats in Texas that Democrats want to hold in 2022 to maintain their slim House majority. The current representatives of those seats — Lizzie Fletcher, Vicente Gonzalez, and Henry Cuellar — signed a letter to President Biden in January asking him to reverse an executive order suspending new oil and gas leases on federal land. Their districts are heavily dependent on the energy sector for jobs, and energy-sector jobs pay very well. The energy industry is demonstrably not the boogeyman to those Democrats, and they want the national party to understand that.

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Balancing national policy with local interests is always a difficult task for a national party in a congressional system. The best way to think about the challenge is to compare a congress with a parliament. The word “parliament” comes from the Anglo-French word “parler,” meaning “to speak.” It’s about discourse and conversation, and many European parliaments were originally assembled to advise monarchs. The idea was that by having smart people talk to each other, the monarch would be better able to act in the interest of the nation as a whole than if he or she were acting alone.

A congress is a different model of governance. The word “congress” comes from the Latin word “congredi,” meaning “to come together.” It’s not predicated on smart people talking to each other and sacrificing their interests for the good of the nation. It’s predicated on different people coming together and balancing their interests for the good of their constituents.

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In his 1774 “Speech to the Electors of Bristol,” Edmund Burke said that

Parliament is not a Congress of Ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an Agent and Advocate, against other Agents and Advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative Assembly of one Nation, with one Interest, that of the whole; where, not local Purposes, not local Prejudices ought to guide, but the general Good, resulting from the general Reason of the whole. You chuse a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a Member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament.

That’s why members of the House of Commons in the U.K. aren’t required to live in the constituencies they represent. As Americans, we think that’s odd, but it makes sense for the parliamentary system. If the purpose of legislative elections is to pick someone guided by “the general Good,” it would be silly to discriminate based on whether they live in a certain place in the country. “The general Good,” by definition, isn’t local, and you can probably think of a politician who doesn’t live in your area who better represents your views on the overall direction of the country than your congressman does.

Our House of Representatives, however, is not a parliament, and it’s completely appropriate for members, acting as “an Agent or Advocate,” to maintain their “different and hostile interests.” In Federalist No. 53, James Madison argues that in “the great theatre of the United States,” maintaining those local interests actually makes for better national government by taking advantage of the dispersed knowledge held by each member:

The laws are so far from being uniform, that they vary in every State; whilst the public affairs of the Union are spread throughout a very extensive region, and are extremely diversified by the local affairs connected with them, and can with difficulty be correctly learnt in any other place than in the central councils to which a knowledge of them will be brought by the representatives of every part of the empire. Yet some knowledge of the affairs, and even of the laws, of all the States, ought to be possessed by the members from each of the States. How can foreign trade be properly regulated by uniform laws, without some acquaintance with the commerce, the ports, the usages, and the regulations of the different States? How can the trade between the different States be duly regulated, without some knowledge of their relative situations in these and other respects? How can taxes be judiciously imposed and effectually collected, if they be not accommodated to the different laws and local circumstances relating to these objects in the different States? How can uniform regulations for the militia be duly provided, without a similar knowledge of many internal circumstances by which the States are distinguished from each other? These are the principal objects of federal legislation, and suggest most forcibly the extensive information which the representatives ought to acquire.

Right now, we see Democrats from oil-and-gas-producing districts trying to convey their local information to the national party. It’s trickier now than when Madison envisioned it because there’s a whole other branch of government involved — the executive — that actually holds much of the decisionmaking power. That’s why Fletcher, Gonzalez, and Cuellar wrote their letter to Joe Biden, not to Nancy Pelosi.

And that’s why Joe Biden had such a hard go of it during the campaign when he was asked about fracking. The best move for him was to be unclear about fracking because he knew voters in places like Pennsylvania that benefited from fracking were crucial to his election and his party’s control over Congress. The unitary, national executive does not contain any mechanisms to handle conflicts between local interests. That’s what the House of Representatives is for, but Congress has relinquished much of its power to the executive branch over the years.

What Democrats in Congress have to decide is whether the interests of their moderate members in energy-sector districts are important enough to sacrifice the interests of progressive members who want to aggressively curb fossil-fuel use. That’s an entirely proper question for a congress to deal with. Congress is not a parliament, and local concerns matter even though it’s the national legislature.

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