Poll-counters abdicate their duty of judgment ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

February 22, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON — *TC WASHINGTON -- In a speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774 Edmund Burke laid down this dictum: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

But that, of course, was before the telephone was invented and politicians started taking the temperature of their constituents daily by counting calls and conducting polls. Indeed, we have reached the ridiculous point at which the White House through the Democratic National Committee felt obliged to hire a telemarketing company to make phone calls to House and Senate offices supporting President Clinton's economic program.

No one would argue that politicians -- whether in the White House or Congress -- would be wise to ignore the opinion of their constituents. As Adlai Stevenson once observed, the first duty of any politician is to get elected. And sometimes the message from the grass roots is so overwhelmingly obvious -- as in the opposition to the nomination of Zoe Baird for attorney general, for example -- that it could not be ignored.

But it is also true that making decisions on the basis of polls or tallies of telephone calls and mail is a cop-out. In theory, at least, presidents and members of Congress are much better informed about issues than their constituents and thus should feel they owe those constituents the benefit of their knowledge. Just because someone gins up a telephone campaign to, let's say, save the last vestiges of the rural electrification program doesn't mean that it makes sense when weighed against other priorities. And only those who know all the options can make those choices wisely.

On the other hand, the telephone and mail campaigns and those dreaded radio call-in talk shows offer voters a chance to register the views of people who understand that not all political wisdom can be found inside the Beltway -- and who have no other avenue open to make their opinions felt.

The politicians would be in a better position to resist such pressures, however, if it were not demonstrably true that they are subject to others -- specifically, the pressures that can be exerted by the big contributors to their campaigns through political action committees representing relatively narrow interests. The one certainty about the negotiations over the final specifics of the Clinton program is that the lobbyists will make themselves heard one way or another. They are the ones who know the details and which senator or congressman holds the important leverage on which subcommittee.

This is the essential weakness in the instant response now being prompted by both opponents and supporters of the Clinton plan and by the president himself. The opinion is being registered long before the nitty-gritty details are confronted in Senate and House committees that will write the legislation. And it is in those forums that lobbyists behind, for example, that rural electrification program will make themselves heard.

It is already possible to make a reasonable guess at some of the proposals that are almost certain to be revised. One is Clinton's plan to increase the amount of Social Security benefits subject to taxation for retirees with annual incomes from all sources above $32,000. The organizations of the retired already are pointing out that this will make these particular middle-class taxpayers subject to a double hit because they also will have to pay the higher energy taxes to be levied indirectly on everyone. This is a case in which both direct constituent pressure and lobbying will be brought to bear and probably effectively enough so that the taxable income level will be raised to some higher figure.

Moreover, the president and congressional leaders all understand that his program is a starting point, a bargaining position, rather than a plan that must be accepted or rejected in its entirety.

Meanwhile, however, it makes sense for the president to build the broadest possible consensus behind his program. In a perfect world, senators and representatives would give us all the benefit of both their industry and their judgment, just as Edmund Burke would have it. But in the real world of American politics today, many of them will be counting the cards and letters and keeping tally sheets on those telephone calls.

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