Questions like which came first, the chicken or the egg, are irrelevant because they’re unanswerable (although for the record, scientists come down on the side of the egg.) Here is a more relevant and important question. Which comes first for members of Congress: their oath to the Constitution or the demands of their constituents?
The Washington Post’s David Montgomery recently touched on that latter question in an article, “What Wyoming Really Thinks of Liz Cheney.” The author traveled 2,100 miles across Wyoming and spoke with voters about their thoughts on their Republican congresswoman, Liz Cheney. Wyoming has an at-large congressional district, which is the sole congressional district for the state. It is the third-largest congressional district in the United States in terms of square mileage. Wyoming registered a population of 576,851 in the 2020 census, making it the least-populated state in the country. Cheney represents them all.
She was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Cheney had voted against the first impeachment, in 2019, over Trump’s apparent bid to extort the president of Ukraine. Cheney was stripped of her leadership position in the House GOP caucus after the second impeachment hearing for displaying disloyalty to Trump. Cheney was later appointed vice chair of the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack.
The Washington Post report, which was anecdotal rather than based on polling results, reported that many Wyoming residents think Cheney betrayed them because of her impeachment vote and her position on the Jan. 6 committee. Park County GOP chairman Martin Kimmet is quoted as saying, “Seemingly she just doesn’t really care what we want her to do.”
Cheney also has plenty of supporters throughout the state. Matt Micheli, a former state GOP chairman, called Cheney “a phenomenal representative for our state.”
But back to my original question. Is Cheney’s duty primarily to uphold the Constitution? Or is it to do what her constituents want — that is, represent their interests? Of course, ideally it should be both.
Members of the House take an oath to uphold the Constitution on the opening day of each new Congress. The First Congress (1789–1791) wrote the words to the oath, although it had been changed several times. The following oath has been used since 1862: “I … do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
The genius behind this American experiment, which is articulated by the Constitution, is the system of checks and balances the Founders designed and the importance they gave to the rule of law. When members of Congress affirm their oath, they are first and foremost swearing to support and defend the Constitution, followed by swearing allegiance to the Constitution and finally to faithfully execute the duties of their office.
Cheney is one of the most conservative members of Congress. She is pro-Second Amendment and an opponent of abortion rights. She believes in small government, a strong defense and low taxes. She voted with Trump 93% of the time. Conservatives at their core believe in conserving the values of the Founders. Perhaps Cheney’s actions since Jan. 6 are the most conservative thing she could do.
On May 11, the night before the GOP stripped her of her leadership post, Cheney spoke on the House floor. She started by stating “Madam speaker, I rise tonight to discuss freedom and our constitutional duty to protect it.”
She went on to say, “Our duty is clear. Every one of us who has sworn the oath must act to prevent the unraveling of our democracy. This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent, and ignoring the lie, emboldens the liar.”
Cheney invoked the very oath she swore. It was as if she heard my question and answered it directly.
Cheney ended her speech by stating, “Ultimately, this is at the heart of what our oath requires — that we love our country more. That we love her so much we will stand above politics to defend her. That we will do everything in our power to protect our constitution and our freedom — paid for by the blood of so many. We must love her so much we will never yield in her defense. That is our duty.”
Hopefully, the voters of Wyoming will see that Cheney is doing both: standing up for Constitution and representing the values her constituents hold dear.
Lynn Schmidt is a Post-Dispatch columnist and Editorial Board member.