Is Congress Trustworthy?

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Wednesday, May 28, 2003
I’ve been looking over some recent survey results on public attitudes toward members of Congress, and I’m worried. People generally give their representatives high marks for being informed about the issues and quite strong approval for their hard work. In fact, three out of four believe that most members of Congress work hard at their jobs. Yet there’s an even higher proportion– a full 86 percent– who agree with the statement that most members of Congress will lie if they feel the truth might hurt them politically. That’s a lot of Americans who don’t trust their elected representatives. 

What’s interesting to me is that the level of trust within Congress– that is, among the senators and representatives who work together day in and day out– is far higher. That is because on Capitol Hill, trust is the coin of the realm; pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a member of Congress is to have word get around among your colleagues that you cannot be relied upon. In order to do their jobs, legislators have to work with others: They cut deals, they agree to support an ally on one issue in exchange for support on something closer to their own heart, they rely on one another to move legislation forward or to block a bill they oppose. Members who renege on their commitments soon find it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve much of what they want. Which may explain why, over the course of my time in office, I found the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of members of Congress I worked with to be fundamentally honest. I would be hard pressed to come up with more than a few instances over 34 years when fellow members lied to me. 

Of course, my relationship with them was as legislator to legislator, not voter to politician. And the truth is, you can understand why there might be a wider gulf between the public and their representatives: Politicians make a large number of speeches; they issue public statements; they give countless media interviews; they respond to letters and inquiries; they hold forums and meetings; they meet constituents in cafes and VFW halls. It’s hardly surprising that in the course of this, they’d sometimes be inconsistent, or even contradictory. But I don’t think a blanket criticism that you cannot trust members of Congress is fair. So how does one explain it? 

To begin with, I think part of the fault lies with members of Congress themselves. They are usually quite skillful with the use of language, and parse their words carefully; after all, they want your support, and do not want to antagonize you. A politician can often find a way to glide over his or her precise beliefs without actually lying. So it’s crucial for members of the public to listen very carefully, and ask hard follow-up questions if they find too much wiggle-room in an answer. 

But it’s also true that what might appear to be an inconsistency or a lie is just the result of an honest politician struggling with the complexities of public policy. For one thing, the circumstances under which a legislator commits to a certain position often change. Think about national security, for instance: The answers our political leaders were giving to questions on security issues on September 10, 2001, were probably very different from the ones they’ve given since then. By the same token, legislation can take months, if not years, to work its way through the process, and quite often it looks very different at the end from how it started out. So a legislator may initially support a particular bill, and tell his or her constituents, but eventually vote against it because amendments in committee or on the floor made it unpalatable. Votes are, in the end, a blunt instrument: They’re yes or no, up or down, and they simply cannot reflect all the nuances of a member’s thinking or the changes and complexity of the issues. 

It’s important to keep this in mind, because on any given issue, a legislator’s opinions are usually quite complex, formed through conversations with lobbyists, other legislators, constituents, experts in the field, and others. It’s often hard to convey all the nuances, conditions and qualifications that make up one’s position, and even if a politician does so, voters often forget them. Certainly, I’ve had the experience of a constituent assuring me that I said such-and-such a year ago, when I knew quite well that what I’d said was more qualified than that. 

Perhaps Americans’ cynicism about their representatives’ truthfulness is just part and parcel of living in an age when public service as a whole is looked upon skeptically. Perhaps it’s just a broad-brush criticism of Congress, without much to back it up, and people for the most part trust their own particular representative; certainly, the high rate at which members of Congress win re-election suggests they enjoy the support of their constituents. But even if it’s simply the institution as a whole that suffers from such extensive distrust, it’s a serious problem for representative democracy. And all of us– politicians and voters alike– need to work harder at improving the public dialogue. 

(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.)