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In Defense of Representative Democracy   (4)

Further to their role as the official law-making organ of society, most legislatures perform a unique educational role. Individual legislators simplify complicated issues and define policy choices. They use their resources and expertise to filter information from many sources and to resolve conflicting ideological positions, ultimately presenting their constituents with clear-cut options based on negotiation and compromise. This educational function has become increasingly important as societies have become more complex, as the scope of government activity has become rather extensive, and as the public has gained increased access to legislative proceedings, particularly via the press and television.

In open, democratic regimes, legislatures take a variety of forms. One major way in which legislatures can differ concerns their relationship to the overall political system of which they are a part. For instance, a legislature may be part of either a parliamentary system (like England) or a system of separated powers--usually known as a presidential system (like the U.S.). This distinction is rooted in a society's constitution and has a major impact on the role the legislature is designed to play.

It is important to point out that legislature in a parliamentary system is a parliament; the legislature in a presidential system is a congress. Although the distinction goes beyond mere names, the names do reflect some of the differences between these two legislative bodies. According to the political scientist James Q. Wilson, the root of the word parliament is the French word "parler" (to talk), whereas the root of the word congress is the Latin "congressus" (to come together, or assemble). While most legislatures fall into one or the other of these categories, the names of individual legislatures are sometimes misleading. For instance, the Hungarian legislature is akin to a parliament, yet its name, the National Assembly, might suggest otherwise. Similarly, in Russia, the word "Soviet" means "Council" in English; nonetheless, the legislature is actually part of a presidential system.

In a parliamentary system, the executive and the leaders of the administrative bureaucracies are chosen from and are accountable to the majority in Parliament. Whereas in a presidential system the executive and the cabinet are entirely separate from the legislative body. Consequently, separate resources, goals, and responsibilities exist for the legislature. No one (an exception is the vice president in the U.S. case) can be a member of both the executive and the legislative branch. Depending on party orientation and dynamics, the two branches of government can be at odds over policy priorities and legislative agenda.

How legislators are elected can vary enormously. On the national level, for example, legislators can be chosen from districts that each elect a single representative. Alternatively, under a system of proportional representation, each political party is represented in the legislature according to its percentage of the total vote nationwide. Whatever the method used, public officials in a representative democracy hold office in the name of the people and remain accountable to the people for their actions.

The British House of Commons, like many other parliaments and like the U.S. Congress, has single-member districts, designed by geographic boundaries. Other legislatures, like the Dutch Legislature, operate through proportional representation. Members might have geographically defined districts, but they are chosen through a national election process where seats are allocated by national percentage votes for parties. In some systems, a party needs (5 or 10) percent of the votes cast nationwide before it gets seats in the parliament. In others, only (1) percent is required.

Today, the most common form of representative democracy, whether for a town of 50,000 or nations of 50 million, is representative democracy, in which citizens elect officials to make political decisions, formulate laws, and administer programs for the public good. In the name of the people, such officials can deliberate on complex public issues in a thoughtful and systematic manner that requires an investment of time and energy that is often impractical for the vast majority of private citizens.

Another defining characteristic of most legislatures is the dual role of the legislators. On the one hand, the legislature makes laws that affect the entire nation or society and are presumably intended to be for the good of the public as a whole. On the other hand, its individual members, the legislators, have a duty to represent the interests of their individual constituencies. This inherent tension is unique to representative forms of government that have districts.

The well-known political theorist and lawmaker Edmund Burke eloquently expressed the tension between the roles of trustee and delegate. He has insisted, in a speech in 1774, that "Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole--where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole". In short, when a member is chosen to represent a specific constituency, indeed, he/she is not a member of Ejdabiah, for instance, but he/she is a Member of Parliament.

This tension between the trustee and delegate roles exists for all legislators. It can be a tension built around the needs of a smaller geographic constituency versus the needs of a nation, or around the needs of a narrow ideological or ethnic group versus the needs of a nation, depending on the base of representation. Naturally, each country and each legislature has to decide how best to channel and balance those tensions. If the minimum number of votes required to gain representation in the legislature is too low, small and narrow groups can wield inordinate power and the desires and needs of the majority can suffer. But creating districts that are too large or holding elections only at the national level can disenfranchise minority ethnic and interest groups and leave them feeling powerless, isolated and bitter.

The U.S. system was set up the way it was in part as a reaction against the British parliamentary system, which tends to exaggerate the role of political parties in the legislative process. In the British system, the executive/prime minister and the legislature/Parliament are linked and are necessarily controlled by the same party. The framers of the U.S. Constitution derived the concept of representative government from the social-contract theories of John Locke and other political philosophers that held that legitimate authority ought to be based on the consent of the governed. Over time, members of U. S. Congress have acted as trustees for the nation rather than as direct agents of their own constituents. They most often adopt this national role in response to personal philosophy or the urgency or complexity of a particular issue or a national problem. However, their commitment to constituent interests remains strong, and when issues of local interest arise, members usually respond by voting accordingly.

In an authoritarian system like what we have today in Libya, elections are nonexistent and virtually all other independent organizations are controlled, licensed, watched, or otherwise accountable to the government. In a democracy, the powers of the government are, by law (constitution), clearly defined and sharply limited. As a result, private independent organizations are free of government control; on the contrary, many of them lobby the government and seek to hold it accountable for its actions. Other groups, concerned with the arts, the practice of religious faith, scholarly research, or other interests, may choose to have little or no contact with the government at all.

To be continued

Abdelrahim Saleh

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