EDITORIAL: The last temptation of Rep. Massa

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Democratic contempt for public concerns over government health care is getting brazen.

Rep. Eric Massa, New York Democrat, said last weekend, “I will vote adamantly against the interests of my district. …” In footage caught on tape by our own Kerry Picket at the Netroots Nation Convention, Mr. Massa ripped on his own constituents for being “right wing” and defiantly proclaimed he would back a single-payer government health system despite them. It was a surprising moment of candor, which Mr. Massa diluted with clumsy backpedaling after the clip was posted on our Water Cooler blog.

Mr. Massa’s declaration of independence from his own constituents calls to mind British politician and political philosopher Edmund Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol on Nov. 3, 1774. The address has become a classic exposition of the duties of an elected representative in balancing the national interest against the opinions of his constituents. Burke believed it was his duty to act as an independent force of reason, not simply to be a weather vane at the mercy of the political winds. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment,” Burke said, “and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” The electors were moved by Burke’s principled stand, and he won the race.

Mr. Massa’s defiance raises questions about his views of representative democracy. Who, indeed, does Mr. Massa represent? Are his constituents qualified to make judgments on lofty questions of national interest? Is Mr. Massa a better judge of these matters? “You choose a member, indeed,” Burke said, “but when you have chosen him he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a Member of Parliament.” So might Mr. Massa say to the people of western New York: When you elected me, you elected a congressman, not a “29th Districter.”

Over time, Burke’s theory ran into the reality that all politics is local. In 1778, Parliament was considering a motion to lift trade restrictions with Ireland. Burke thought free trade would benefit the country as a whole. But it would not benefit Bristol, a commercial city that would see its share of the market decline if trade was opened. Burke stood firm. “If, from this conduct, I shall forfeit their suffrages at an ensuing election,” he said, “it will stand on record an example to future representatives of the Commons of England, that one man at least had dared to resist the desires of his constituents when his judgment assured him they were wrong.” Sure enough, Burke was voted out of office in the next election.

We urge Mr. Massa to continue to try to explain to his constituents why his inside-the-Beltway judgment is superior to their common sense; why he supports a government-controlled single-payer health plan instead of less costly options with a smaller government role. And we hope that Mr. Massa will explain his disagreements with their opinions to them personally in town-hall meetings instead of revealing his true beliefs only to left-wing activists in private meetings in faraway cities.

Burke was open and forthright. He told his constituents what they were getting upfront and stuck to his principles, even to defeat at the polls. We have yet to see such a principled, daring public stand from Mr. Massa.

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