• 52% of Americans see most members of Congress as corrupt,
• 79% see most members of Congress as out of touch, and
• 69% view members of Congress caring more about special interests than the needs of their constituents,
While some members of Congress certainly deserve the indignation they receive from the public, I think the body is often unfairly maligned. Imagine getting up at 6:30 every morning, Monday through Sunday, and kicking off 14 to 15 hours of non-stop meetings. The meetings are on every issue under the sun -- from trade with foreign countries to traffic conditions to whether the local Post Office should be renamed after Elvis Presley. That pretty accurately describes the life of an elected official with the occasional vacation or day off thrown in.
During a typical week, for example, members of Congress have an extensive schedule of visits, dinners and meetings in their congressional districts or states. They fly to Washington, D.C., where they have more meetings, votes, evening events and, most important, interactions with constituents from their districts and states. Often, members have major employers in their districts or states who needs they have to keep in mind. And these employers will donate to their campaigns. So are these legislators representing the people who contribute to their campaigns? Or the people who live in the district? It’s not always as crystal clear as we might think.
Members of Congress are influenced by a variety of factors, including personal relationships, media coverage, and personal interests and passion. Members of Congress are human beings, who look to their family, friends, and even staff for advice. Media coverage of events will often have an influence on what elected officials do. Elected officials even have personal interests and passions that animate them. Finally, in my opinion, the most important thing that influences Congress is their constituency connection. For members of the U.S. Congress, the highest and most important obligation is to the people they represent. That’s why the most common phrase heard in any elected officials’ office is “how does this impact my constituents.” It is the framework through which all decisions are made.
Will I erase your skepticism about money? No. Does money play a role in setting an overall agenda and getting people elected? Yes. Do legislators HATE raising money? A resounding yes. At the same time, remember you do have another avenue for influence – your role as a constituent. Don’t give up that right simply because you’re disgusted by money in politics. You may be the only hope we have of fixing the system.
Members of Congress value the opinions of their constituents and work hard to stay in touch with them. And despite low opinions of Congress as a whole, many Americans (and clearly most voters) have higher opinions of their own member of Congress and vote to re-elect their member. So before you complain about Congress, it’s worth your time to take a more careful look at the institution, its members, and why they make the decisions they do.
- Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru