Friday, August 1, 2014

On the Duty of Public Service: The Case of Rep. Eric Cantor

Public service, such as holding public office and defending the homeland under attack, is rooted historically in a duty rather than being intended to further personal ambitions. Hence, public advancement is a reward for having gone beyond the call of duty in one’s public service. To be sure, it is not unheard of that an elected official views his or her post as a launching pad for personal enrichment, whether in terms of wealth or power. When this aim becomes primary, the duty aspect of the public service can easily fall away like a tadpole’s tail off a bumpy toad. U.S. House representative (and majority leader) Eric Cantor is a case in point, both in why he lost his seat and his decision to resign it early rather than finish his term.

U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Mark Wilson, Getty Images)

In his defeat in the Republican primary, Cantor acknowledged the criticism that he had not kept sufficiently in touch with his district. Although his position as majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives involved much work in Washington, D.C., the post was also fodder for further advancement; indeed, having reached the office points to a strong ambition. The duty of a representative to represent his or her constituents can easily be slighted or crowded out by such personal ambition. Essentially, the office becomes a creature of the man rather than the duty.

When Cantor contacted a newspaper hours after he stepped down as the majority leader to make public his intention to resign his seat in time for a special election to coincide with the upcoming general election, he emphasized the fact that his successor would be able to take office immediately and so his constituents would not go without representation.[1] Of course, they would be covered had Cantor decided to serve out his full term, but that would have involved enduring what several Republicans told Politico "the humbling shift from 11 years in the leadership to being a back bencher, even if only for four months."[2] That Cantor never began his move to the small office in the Capitol he had been assigned when he announced he would be stepping down as majority leader suggests that he may have decided on election night to resign his seat rather than serve the remainder of his term. In making that decision (whenever he did it), Cantor was once again putting his own interests above public service; being in Congress had been about him, rather than serving. As soon as "serving" became uncomfortable, even embarrassing for him, he easily tossed off the duty and bolted during the summer break.

The American Founding Fathers envisioned citizens taking leave from their occupations to serve a term of office to represent their fellow citizens. The operative assumption, hopefully gained from empirical observation, was that the citizens urged to run would only grudgingly part from their businesses or farms to serve in Congress. Out of this assumption, a felt duty can be readily inferred. For an elected representative to disregard his representative role would connote an indifference to the very duty that he had accepted in agreeing to run. Likewise, to resign before the end of his term would have played as a shirking of duty, and thus as a sign of a weak character.

[1] The Associated Press, “Eric Cantor Plans to Resign House Seat Earlier Than Expected: Report,” The Huffington Post, August 1, 2014.
[2] Anna Palmer, Jake Sherman, and John Bresnahan, "Why Eric Cantor Really Resigned," Politico, August 1, 2014.