Belding: Whom do the members of Congress represent?

U.S. Rep. Steve King spoke at his new offices in Ames on Tuesday, May 23.

Michael Belding

Having a new representative in Congress is always an adjustment. Two weeks ago, when the 113th Congress began its first session, Ames, along with northern and northwestern Iowa, became the constituents not of the level-headed Tom Latham, but of a man who has a reputation as something of a radical, Steve King.

Representation in a republic the size of the United States is essential, and we have a rich heritage of it. Indeed, the nature of representation was a key part of the debates on the Constitution. At the Constitutional Convention, George Mason of Virginia argued in a speech on June 6, 1787 that, “The requisites in actual representation are that the representatives should sympathize with their constituents, should think as they think, and feel as they feel, and that, for these purposes, should even be residents among them.”

The debate continued after the convention closed, and the Constitution was put to the states. On the Federalist side, Alexander Hamilton asked rhetorically, “Is it not natural that a man who is a candidate for the favor of the people and who is dependent on the suffrages of his fellow citizens for the continuance of his public honors should take care to inform himself of their dispositions and inclinations and should be willing to allow them their proper degree of influence upon his conduct?”

Joining Hamilton, James Madison wrote, “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on and an intimate sympathy with the people.”

The Anti-Federalist Melancton Smith pursued two avenues for voicing his opinion. Writing a series of letters as a “Federal Farmer,” he argued that the “full and equal representation” on which “a free and good government” depends “is that which possesses the same interests, feelings, opinions and views the people themselves would were they all assembled.” In a speech in New York’s convention to ratify the Constitution, he proclaimed, “The idea that naturally suggests itself to our minds when we speak of representatives is that they resemble those they represent; they should be a true picture of the people, possess the knowledge of their circumstances and their wants, sympathize in all their distresses, and be disposed to seek their true interests.”

Another New Yorker who wrote as “Brutus” (probably Robert Yates) argued that representatives “are supposed to know the minds of their constituents and … be possessed of integrity to declare this mind.” And the minority at Pennsylvania’s convention who voted against ratification wrote that representatives ought “to possess the same interests, feelings, opinions and views, which the people themselves would possess, were they all assembled.”

For all the quotations of the founding generation that permeate politics, if one thing has remained unchanged since 1787-1788, it is the definition of representation. Yet, clarion calls, and general derision against the buying of politicians or electoral votes through “special interest” political action committees or out-of-state campaign donations often sound out in the cacophony of political discourse.

On the issue of the 2012 retention vote of Iowa Supreme Court Justice David Wiggins, the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted in an editorial, “Although court critics are spending less on their effort than in 2010, much of the money is still coming from out of state, according to campaign finance filings.” Two weeks after this year’s elections, The New York Times argued that in state judicial elections, “The dominant role played by special-interest money … has severely weakened the principle of fair and impartial courts.”

After a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., The New York Times editorialized on the National Rifle Association. “Businesses and special-interest groups often cloak their profit motives in the garb of constitutional rights. Think Big Tobacco and its opposition to restrictions on smoking in public places and bold warnings on cigarette packages.”

Every citizen ought to have such concerns. One of the ways in which we can measure how much heed a candidate might pay his or her constituents, if elected, is the source of his campaign money.

The 2012 election for our Congressional district pitted Steve King for the Republicans against Christie Vilsack for the Democrats. Both candidates had their faults. King is outspoken and, before getting a chance to explain himself to opponents, makes it possible for news writers and pundits to make the fact that he said something into an event. If there is a carpetbagger in the race, however, Vilsack is it. The spreadsheets I compiled will be posted online, but a summary of the data is as follows.

King received a total of $2,738,250 in itemized donations. Individuals contributed $1,903,185 of that figure, or 69.5 percent of the total. Party committees contributed $32,656, or 1.2 percent of the total. Other committees (PACs, etc.) contributed $802,409, or 29.3 percent of the total.

Overall, 51.3 percent of King’s itemized campaign contributions came from out-of-state sources. His campaign received 16 percent of its money from in-state sources he did not represent in his old district or would not represent in his new one, and 32.7 percent of its money came from sources located in areas he either had represented in the past or would be charged with representing should he have won the election.

Vilsack received a total of $2,583,241 in itemized donations. Individuals contributed $2,031,179, or 78.6 percent of the total. Party committees contributed $15,382, or 0.60 percent of the total. Other committees (PACs, etc.) contributed $536,680, or 20.8 percent of the total. It is interesting to note that although 78.6 percent of itemized contributions to Vilsack came from individuals, residents of other states made 59.9 percent of her individual contributions, or 47.1 percent — the largest by far — of total contributions.

Overall, 66.8 percent of Vilsack’s itemized campaign contributions came from out-of-state sources. Her campaign received 21.9 percent of its money from in-state sources King did not represent or that Vilsack would not represent if elected, and 11.3 percent of Vilsack’s itemized campaign money came from sources located in areas either King had represented in the past or would represent if victorious.

When so much campaign money is from sources outside the constituency, is it possible for an officeholder to represent the combination of people, interests, and perspectives swirling around in that constituency? Or is the representative merely a placeholder for a national party ideology? Such questions as these are among those that voters should ask themselves. If the people truly are to hold their representatives accountable and capture the essence of a republican government, they must be able to choose from a field of representatives who receive only 11.3 percent — or even 32.7 percent — of their campaign funding from the people who live in the place they will represent.


Michael Belding is a graduate student in history from Story City, Iowa.