Congress and the Common Good

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Thursday, September 20, 2001
A few weeks back, a journalist asked me what worries me most about Congress. I paused for a moment to consider the question, and as I did so, an old political encounter sprang to mind. 

It was Election Day, and I was back in the southern Indiana district I represented in Congress for many years, making the rounds of voting precincts and chatting with voters. Outside, I ran into an older woman I'd never met before and asked her whether she'd voted. She said she had, and then added, You know, I vote for my candidate, and then I go home and pray for the winner. I asked her what she meant. Well, I want him or her to work not just for a few, she said, but for everyone. 

I never did meet that woman again, but she has stuck with me all these years. In that brief comment, I thought, she expressed the healthiest attitude toward politics I'd ever heard, and said it better than any politician or pundit. I think it's what most of us want: that our elected representatives work not just for a few, but for everyone. 

But Congress, I told my interviewer, doesn't do it enough: It does not focus sufficiently on the common good. There are lots of reasons for this, some of them quite understandable. As a member of Congress, for instance, you might have 15 meetings a day and every single one will be with someone who wants his or her slice of the federal budget. There are farmers and small-businesspeople and defense contractors and researchers and road-builders and people who suffer from disease. There's a myriad of interest groups, corporations, unions, professional groups, constituents, and colleagues, all of whom want just that one little bit of the federal dollar, and who can make an eloquent case that it may benefit them personally, but really, it will benefit the nation as a whole. 

There's nothing sinister or malicious about any of this; in a sense, it's how the process of government works: Out of the clamor of different voices and divergent needs, we forge policy and a sense of direction. But I remember often sitting in those meetings and wondering, "Who speaks for the common good?" Who stands apart from this agitated group of special-interest people and thinks about the good of the country? This is not, by the way, a new question. Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, urged Americans Ato unite in common efforts for the common good. And those who make policy, John Adams once wrote, should maintain a Adisinterested attachment to the public good, exclusive and independent of all private and selfish interest. The Founders spent a lot of time pondering ways to encourage this, and the system they came up withCseparating the government into three, co-equal branchesCwas designed with that goal in mind. Thinking about the good of the country, in other words, is the job of the Congress no less than that of the President and the Supreme Court. All too often, though, it falls short. 

There is no single force to blame for this. The high-stakes gamesmanship of politics today; the influence of campaign money; the sophisticated strategies of lobbyists; the growing complexity and scope of legislation; the sheer demands on the time and energy of members of Congress; the extraordinary diversity of the American people all make it difficult for an individual member of Congress to step back and sort through what he or she believes is right for the country. And why do so when you don't need to? Please enough self-interested groups, and you've hammered together a majority. That's considered to be realistic congressional politics these days, and there are those who argue that it's the way things ought to be: Everybody working for his or her own self-interest, they argue, is what makes this country work. 

But I don't think that's what Adams or Jefferson had in mind. Seeking to please as many groups as possible may be how you gain or hold on to power, but it is not how you govern wisely. I can't help but think that the remedy for much that ails our political system is for each of us ordinary citizen and member of Congress alikeCto restore in our lives a sense of the public good, to ask ourselves not what's good for any one of us, but what's good for the country. 

I once met a historian who had studied Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I'm a Democrat, I said, Abut the truth is, I don't know a lot about Roosevelt. What should we remember about him? The response came without hesitation: Roosevelt judged every piece of legislation by the question, How does it affect ordinary people? That's the right test, and it's the one every member of Congress should apply. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)