While Republicans and Republicans near a deal to extend the payroll tax cut, an extension remains poor policy. The Social Security trust fund was designed as a trust fund, to which we would all contribute. True, plenty of retirees receive far more in benefits than they ever contributed in the first place, but, the point is, Social Security is the one safety net in which we are all invested.
Certainly, Social Security is in desperate need of reform — I’m one who didn’t flinch when Rick Perry called it a Ponzi scheme — but a payroll tax cut is not it. If ever President Obama’s rhetoric about taxes as “investments” was true, it’s in the case of the payroll tax. Even workers among the 47 percent of Americans who pay “no taxes” still contribute to Social Security. Especially given that the cut will likely produce no very great burst of economic activity, the extension can, perhaps, best be interpreted as a redistributive policy.
But this post is actually not intended to be an enumeration of the specific policy reasons to oppose the payroll tax cut extension. It is, rather, a post intended to remind Republicans in the House and Senate of their role as elected representatives. I get it: The payroll tax cut extension is tough to oppose. It’s a middle-class tax cut that is highly favored by the American people. That last fact alone would tempt any representative to support it. After all, aren’t our elected officials supposed to vote in such a way as reflects “the will of the people”?
Yes, but … We are not a direct democracy for a reason. If we were, we would have voted ourselves a payroll tax cut extension about six months ago and avoided all this end-of-the-year drama in the first place. It still would have been poor policy.
Yes, our representatives are to be responsive to our wishes and accountable before us. That’s why we have elections. But, during their term in office, representatives and senators (especially senators!) are called to bring wisdom and perspective to the governing process.
Calvin Coolidge, for example, believed that representatives were duty-bound to follow their consciences once elected.
“We have too much legislating by clamor, by tumult, by pressure,” Coolidge said once while governor of Massachusetts. “Representative government ceases when outside influence of any kind is substituted for the judgment of the representative.”
According to historian Paul Johnson, Coolidge thought voters have the right to vote, but a representative, having been voted into office, must use his judgment. Johnson writes: “Coolidge added: ‘This does not mean that the opinion of constituents is to be ignored. It is to be weighed most carefully, for the representative must represent, but his oath provides that it must be ‘faithfully and agreeably to the rules and regulations of the Constitution and laws.””
But no better argument exists for the idea that, occasionally, representatives will have to cross their constituents so as to serve them than that made by Alexander Hamilton writing as Publius in Federalist No. 71. It’s a long passage, but it’s well worth the effort it takes to read it (emphasis mine):
The republican principle demands that the deliberate sense of the community should govern the conduct of those to whom they intrust the management of their affairs; but it does not require an unqualified complaisance to every sudden breeze of passion, or to every transient impulse which the people may receive from the arts of men, who flatter their prejudices to betray their interests. It is a just observation, that the people commonly intend the public good. This often applies to their very errors. But their good sense would despise the adulator who should pretend that they always reason right about the means of promoting it. They know from experience that they sometimes err; and the wonder is that they so seldom err as they do, beset, as they continually are, by the wiles of parasites and sycophants, by the snares of the ambitious, the avaricious, the desperate, by the artifices of men who possess their confidence more than they deserve it, and those who seek to possess rather than to deserve it. When occasions present themselves, in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of those interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection. Instances might be cited in which a conduct of this kind has saved the people from very fatal consequences of their own mistakes, and has procured lasting monuments of their gratitude to the men who had courage and magnanimity enough to serve them at the peril of their displeasure.
In this case, the president — with his cross-country stumping in favor of the American Jobs Act — flattered our prejudices to betray our interests. Of course we’re prejudiced in favor of the cut. Who doesn’t want more take-home pay? But at a time when broken entitlement programs are the major driver of our economy-crushing debt, reducing contributions to Social Security — outside of the context of comprehensive reform — betrays our interests.
Meantime, House Republicans initially opposed the payroll tax cut as poor policy. That is, they saw that, in this case, our interests were at variance with our inclinations. But the minute they decided to play politics — to use this as a means to ensure Keystone or, really, just to curry favor with the electorate — they proved that, in this instance at least, they lacked the courage and magnanimity to serve us even at the peril of our displeasure. No monuments going up to these guys anytime soon.