Facing Public's Many Pleas, Congress Must be Pragmatic

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Friday, September 29, 2006
You have to pity your poor member of Congress. Pretty much every poll out there shows the institution to be held in low regard, and it has faced a barrage of criticism over the past several years. Yet if we're going to criticize Congress, we should also understand it, and in particular we need to understand one thing: It is devilishly hard work to represent the American people. 

The job of a member of Congress is to reflect and reconcile the views of his or her constituents, to take the hopes and desires of ordinary Americans and turn them into public policy. This sounds straightforward. It is not. 

Take the popular attitude toward government spending. Members hear over and over that it should be reduced. Yet if they press for specific suggestions, what they get amounts to, "Don't cut the programs that affect me!" Add up all the programs that everyone wants saved, of course, and what you get is a federal budget without cuts. 

Except, perhaps, for "waste, fraud and abuse." These are perennial targets for both politicians and irate taxpayers, but it turns out to be very hard to come up with specifics. 

Then there are taxes. Our representatives know that their constituents prefer lower taxes. But they also know that voters want robust spending on defense; a continuation, if not expansion, of very expensive entitlement programs — Social Security and Medicare; and more money for popular causes such as public education, health care, infrastructure, and national parks. Much as they'd like to, responsible legislators haven't yet found a way to give us big tax cuts and more spending without huge deficits. 

So you can understand why, rather than spending time trying to reconcile all these conflicting views, many of our political leaders opt instead for a less challenging route: They focus on flag-burning amendments or gay marriage or securing funding for a new road or even just naming some post office after a popular community leader. 

Even though it's tempting to scoff, it's also hard not to have sympathy for them. Politicians are just like the rest of us. They want to be liked, and it's hard to achieve that when you're making tough, even agonizing, choices about what to cut or whom to tax. 

Yet if you spend some time talking to ordinary citizens, you find that there are, in fact, some basic things we all agree upon. In particular, you find that, despite what you might glean from reading newspapers or blogs, what drives Americans is not ideology. It may be true that in Washington it all comes down to liberal vs. conservative or Republican vs. Democrat, but the great mass of citizens hold a few basic beliefs that can point the way to a more productive, less divided politics. 

They want to see pragmatic and common-sense approaches to solving our problems. They have a profound instinct for fairness, and want to feel comfortable that public policy is as fair as possible to as many people as possible. 

They want a better life for their children and grandchildren, and are willing to invest prudently in spending on such things as infrastructure, education, and research that will lead us in productive directions. And they believe overwhelmingly that public policy decisions should promote the common good, not the interests of the well-connected or of a narrow slice of the electorate. 

The devil, of course, is in the details, but these are worthy beacons by which a member of Congress can steer. 

No one likes taxes, for instance, but I suspect that Americans are far more flexible on the matter than most politicians think, and if they can be persuaded that their taxes are being put to valuable uses, such as driving down the deficit or investing in their children's future, they'll support it. Similarly, they recognize that entitlement programs are headed toward disaster, but they want pragmatic solutions, not ideologically driven makeovers. 

Simply put, Americans value practical results, not ideology. 

It's tempting for members of Congress to despair that they'll never be able to satisfy everyone, and undoubtedly they often feel between a rock and a hard place as they sort out constituents' desires. Yet the truth is that if they listen deeply to their constituents, seek the principles that underlie what they hear, and then strive to honor Americans' basic pragmatism, fairness, interest in their children's future, and concern for the common good, then governing this big, complicated, diverse country becomes possible. 

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