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Ins and outs of making congress work

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Hamilton, Lee             Lee Hamilton

MEMBERS OF the US congress are categorized in all sorts of ways. They’re liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, interested in domestic affairs or specialists in foreign policy.
There’s one important category, though, that I never hear discussed – whether a member wants to be an inside player or an outside player. Yet where members fall on the continuum helps to shape the institution of congress.
Insiders focus on making the institution work. They give fewer speeches on the floor, issue fewer press releases and spend less time considering how to play the public-relations game or how to raise money. Instead, they put in long, tedious hours on developing legislation, attending hearings, listening to experts, exploring policy options and working on building consensus. They’re the ones who do the necessary work of legislating.
Outsiders pass through the institution of congress but many of them are using the organization – and especially its house of representatives – as a stepping stone to another office, the senate, a governorship, the presidency.
On Capitol Hill, these people behave very differently from insiders. They raise money aggressively, put a lot of effort into developing a public persona and are consumed with public relations.
They travel a lot. They churn out press releases and speak on the floor on every topic they can find to deliver an opinion about. They miss votes more frequently than insiders and often do not attend committee hearings. They’re often impatient with house and senate traditions and are impatient with the democratic process.
You have to have members reaching out to the broader public, talking about the big issues and engaging Americans in the issues of the day. And you need people on the inside who are dedicated to resolving those issues by attending to the legislation that will make resolution possible.
Congress wouldn’t work if everyone were an outside player. Yet, if everyone were an insider, the country would be deprived of the dialogue, debate and sheer spectacle that give Americans a sense of stake and participation in the policy-making process.

Why run for national office?

I SPEND a fair amount of time talking to young people about congress and politics and I’ve noticed something. I was once regularly asked how one runs for office. Nowadays, that rarely happens.
A lot of young people are repelled by politics. But look. If you don’t have people who are willing to run for office, you don’t have a representative democracy.
As the leading edge of the millennial generation reaches the age at which running for office is a realistic possibility, I hope they’ll consider a few things.
First, it’s hard to find a more challenging job. The number, complexity and diversity of the problems we face are astounding. It’s intellectually as challenging an occupation as anything I can imagine.
Second, I don’t know of another profession that puts you in touch with more people of more different types, ages and views – liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, religious believers and secular humanists alike. This splendid array of individuals and convictions is one of the great attractions of the job.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the work can be immensely satisfying. Whether it’s for the school board or for the nation’s president, you’re doing it to try to make things work.
In my first year in congress, in 1965, I voted for Medicare. I’d had no role in drafting it. I played no substantive part in its passage. Yet I still remember that vote and still derive deep satisfaction from it because I know I voted for legislation that has helped millions and will continue to do so.
That’s the thing about holding public office – you have a chance to contribute to the direction and success of a free society. In the scheme of things, this chance isn’t given to all that many people.
There is no America without democracy, no democracy without politics and no politics without elected politicians. There are many satisfying professions but I consider politics chief among them.

Lee Hamilton is director of The Center On Congress At Indiana University and was a member of the US house of representatives for 34 years.

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