Is Congress out of Touch?

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Wednesday, April 17, 2002
It always makes me wince when I hear someone criticize Congress as "out of touch" with what the people are thinking. I used to hear this complaint several times a day when I was in Congress. Polls consistently show that more than three fifths of the public do not expect their elected officials to be responsive to their thoughts. All of this makes me wince for several reasons. 

In the first place, this is a very longstanding problem, around since the very beginnings of our country. From the birth of our nation down to the present day, some of America's most animated political debates have focused on whether the federal government is in close enough touch with the concerns of the average citizen. 

The Framers of the Constitution fought furiously on this point. One faction, led by Virginia's George Mason, called for a large House of Representatives, so each district would be small enough for "common men" to personally communicate their concerns to House members. They were opposed by the Federalists, who argued that if each member represented more people, the House would more likely act in the national interest. 

In a representative democracy like ours, in which members of Congress are asked not just to pass the nation’s laws but also to represent in Washington the interests of the districts and states they represent, staying in touch with constituents remains a fundamental challenge. Much as we might like it to, this isn’t a problem that will soon be going away. 

Secondly, I know how difficult it is for members of Congress to keep in touch with their huge constituencies. Today, each of the 435 members of the House has a district which averages nearly 650,000 people - a number that the Framers could scarcely have imagined. When the first Congress convened in 1789, each of its 65 House members represented around 60,000 people. In addition, some members cover districts of vast geography, with one House member, for example, representing all of Alaska. 

The ability of House members today to stay in touch with their constituencies is vital for the health of our democracy. In our system of government, the House is assigned primary responsibility for understanding and voicing the concerns of the people. That's why the Constitution mandates House elections every two years. If the House falls down in its job as chief citizen-advocate, then the people's faith in the federal government is eroded. 

Third, I know how hard members try to keep in touch. They understand their weighty responsibility, and think about this all the time. It is a constant topic of conversation among members over lunch or as they walk together between meetings — always comparing techniques, always trying to find ways to improve their outreach to constituents. 

Members employ a wide variety of methods to reach out to constituents — sending newsletters district wide, hosting local forums, participating in radio and television call-in shows, attending civic functions and community festivals, using the latest technology for satellite hookups, video conferencing, and live, interactive "virtual town meetings" over the Internet. He or she makes sure that constituents who write, e-mail, fax, or contact their congressman get a letter in response. 

Members also commit an extraordinary amount of time to face-to-face interaction with constituents. A normal day in the office consists of a steady stream of meetings with individuals and organizations that have traveled to the nation's capital or the district office to see their congressman. Those who come calling have an amazing array of concerns, interests, and requests — a reflection of the tremendous diversity and needs of the American population. 

Because House districts now are so populous, even a frenetic pace allows a member to reach only a small portion of his or her constituency. And yet members keep trying to push the envelope on public contact, particularly when they are back home. They do this because handshaking at the county fair and 4th of July parades and other such gatherings is often the only way to have any contact with constituents who are indifferent to politics or are simply too busy in their everyday lives to bother to write or call their congressman. 

Most members of Congress feel a deep sense of obligation to reach out to the public. It is an ongoing challenge for them, and they recognize they simply need to keep working at it. Congressmen have been struggling with this for more than two hundred years, and haven’t yet resolved it. Citizens too need to understand their obligation to make our democratic system function well. They have some responsibility to help their representative not get out of touch by initiating contacts and responding when they can to members’ outreach efforts. It takes the participation and goodwill of all to make our system work. 

(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.)