The Legend of Congressman Jimmy Burke

James A. Burke.jpg

In 1958, longtime Republican Congressman of Massachusetts’ 13th district, Richard Wigglesworth, decided to call it quits after thirty years in office. The district was getting more and more Democratic and his share of the vote had since 1950 been declining with each election year. Elected to succeed him in a competitive race was Democrat James A. “Jimmy” Burke (1910-1983), the first to represent the district since the days of Woodrow Wilson. Burke was a liberal Democrat (MCI score: 10%) who was highly attentive to what his constituents wanted…and after reading this post you might say a bit overly so. Although he shared the last name of the great conservative Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, he was rather far from him ideologically, including on how to serve in office. Edmund Burke famously stated on representation, “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” (Burke).  Jimmy Burke of Boston, on the other hand, said that all you’ve got to know to be in Congress is “Social Security and shoes” (Barone). His district was home to a number of shoe-making factories, thus he could be consistently relied upon as a voice for tariffs on shoes and as a member of the Ways and Means Committee he specialized in Social Security. He also had a rather non-Burkean approach to governance. Former Representative Bill Archer (R-Texas) recounted Burke’s secret to success:

“…there was a delightful Democrat from Boston named Jimmy Burke who never voted for any tax increase and never voted against any spending increase and he would say, “My people like spending.  They don’t like taxes.”  And he got away with that.  I mean, he was just amazing.  And he went up to a Republican on the committee, I’d been on the committee for six months and he said, “Jerry, you know, Bill Archer’s been a real good addition to our committee.  He works hard.  He attends all the meetings.  He does his research right and he articulates well, but he’s got one real problem.”  And the Republican said, “Well, Jim, what is that?”  And he said, “Archer thinks this is all on the level.”” (Smith)

When someone asked Burke why he voted this way and pointed out that this would lead the government to bankruptcy, he responded, “Why shouldn’t I?” (Matthews) Indeed, why shouldn’t he have given his strategy politically worked: his winning percentage of the vote against his Republican challengers increased each election year until 1968, when Republicans stopped fielding a challenger to him. Republicans also hadn’t bothered to field a challenger against him in 1964. His next election challenger would be an Independent in 1976. Burke retired in 1979, having served twenty years in Congress.

Burke’s approach doesn’t add up fiscally, it sounds ridiculous, and I’m not sure I know of an individual member of Congress who does just what Burke did or at least admits to it today, but as it turns out the joke’s on the taxpayers. The collective actions of Congress as of late add up to this…our deficit and debt are soaring and although there is the emergency COVID stimulus to account for, we were still raising spending and not raising taxes (on net, actually cutting them) before COVID hit us. No individual member of Congress may be Jimmy Burke, but the collective impact of Congress’s actions are downright Burkean, and I’m not talking about the philosopher.


Barone, M. (2010, January 25). Voters Spurn the ‘Boob Bait’ of the Educated Class. RealClearPolitics.

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Burke, E. (1774, November 3). Speech to the Electors of Bristol. The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. 6 vols. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854–56.

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Matthews, C. ‘Hardball with Chris Matthews’ for Friday, April 5th, 2013. NBC News.

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Smith, R.N. (2009, April 27). Interview with Bill Archer. The Gerald R. Ford Foundation.

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