The Dangers in Carrying 'Constituent Service' Too Far


Washington. -- Even though it is not mentioned in the United States Constitution, there can be little doubt that constituent service by members of Congress is a valuable part of our system.

This is particularly true because in this country we have a large and powerful bureaucracy which is capable of arbitrary conduct and non-responsiveness to legitimate concerns.

In addition to checking into bureaucratic abuses in individual cases, members of Congress performing constituent services may learn about problems which make them better qualified to carry out their primary work of oversight and legislation.

Finally, members of Congress serve as important intermediaries for their constituents who are often far away from the center of power in Washington.

But constituent service is not an unalloyed blessing. The consequences of case work and focusing upon one's constituencies may have serious disadvantages to our democracy. While the concept of constituent service has been elevated to a religion, its disadvantages have received far too little attention.

For example, "constituent service" is routinely invoked as a defense in congressional ethics cases to explain questionable conduct, as if the mere claim that some official act was done in the name of a constituent somehow insulates a member of Congress from ethical inquiry.

As the need to raise huge campaign war chests steadily grows, so does the amount of time spent on constituent matters. And at least from the perspective of those elected, the definition of "constituent service" is also ever-expanding.

A member of Congress who develops a reputation for doing anything and everything for constituents, whatever the merits, is likely to receive substantial political and financial support, particularly where those constituents involve special interests with large sums of money at their disposal.

Moreover, since all members recognize the critical link between constituent service and campaign finance, comity dictates the reciprocal indulgence of the needs of the constituents of one's colleagues.

As members give more and more attention to constituent service and rely on it more as a way of raising funds, they tend increasingly to neglect their primary role as legislators. During the "Keating five" hearings (investigating the actions of five senators in behalf of S&L; operator Charles Keating Jr. and his failed Lincoln Savings and Loan), one senior staffer testified that the rule in her senator's office was never to say no to a constituent request unless it was from "a kook." One senator stated that a constituent had a right to have a senator intervene on the constituent's behalf even if, on the merits, the constituent's case was "lousy." This may be a good policy for getting re-elected, but it is bad policy for our country.

As more resources, time and attention are spent on narrow constituent interests, there is less time for the national agenda. Excessive attention to individualized concerns, even where legitimate in themselves, tends to engender special remedies that do not take into account the broader consequences of official action or needed policy changes of a general nature.

Apart from the time and resources spend directly on constituent service, members of Congress spend an enormous amount of time and effort on high visibility activities designed to give particular constituencies the impression that the member is watching out for them and is therefore entitled to their political and financial support.

Amendments to bills that cannot possibly pass, endless speeches about parochial matters that are irrelevant or even contrary to important national or local issues, attendance, when not required, at high profile hearings so one can be seen on the evening news -- all of these activities may result in votes and money but they dilute attention from more meaningful legislative tasks.

Not only is the member engaged in these activities wasting his or her time, but also the time of other members who are required to deal with such individual matters.

The linkage between fund-raising and constituent service was the focus of the Keating hearings. Five United States senators -- each claiming that Mr. Keating was his constituent in one way or another -- spent considerable Senate time, along with staff, to assist him on his individualized needs.

It was argued by some in their defense that they were the victims of a bad system which compelled the activities under inquiry. In fact, Sen. Ernest Hollings, on behalf of his colleagues, submitted an affidavit to the Ethics Committee in which he stated: "what is corrupt is the system. . . . Is it not unethical for a senator to spend 20 percent of his time chasing campaign contributions? Please find the system unethical, as it is."

The ethics case of Sen. David Durenberger tells much the same tale. In a relatively short period of time, the senator gave 113 speeches, often requiring out-of-town travel, to various, far-flung constituencies. Even if no unethical conduct were involved in these cases, there is a serious problem when so much valuable congressional time and effort is drained from a legislator's primary tasks.

Using the Ethics Committee's Report in the Keating matter as its starting point, Congress must focus attention on the role of constituent service in our system of government and the methods of such service. If the methods employed are inappropriate, the public's respect for the Congress will be diminished, and Congress, as in the Keating case, will be discredited.

Members of Congress must be given clearer guidelines as to the nature, scope and limits of appropriate constituent service. And even where, on a case-by-case basis, the nature of the service is appropriate and the methods employed in rendering it are legal and ethical, Congress must ask if the overall trend of more and more constituent service is consistent with the needs of our nation.

Robert Bennett is a partner at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washington, D.C. He also served as special counsel to the United States Senate Ethics Committee during the investigation of the "Keating five.".

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