How Members Vote

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Wednesday, October 24, 2001
As I was chatting with a constituent one day, he brought me up short with a simple question: “What's the toughest part of your job?” At the time, I'd represented southern Indiana in Congress for well over two decades, but I had to pause to sort through the possible answers. The long hours? The time spent away from home? The criticism? The heavy lobbying? Suddenly, it came to me that the answer had nothing to do with the frustrations of the job, but with its essence: The toughest part of serving in Congress is voting on legislation. 

This might come as a surprise. Certainly, it surprised my constituent to hear me say so. In the popular imagination, members of Congress don't have to work very hard to make voting decisions. They listen to their biggest campaign donors, or to powerful special interests, or to the polls, and then vote accordingly. Or perhaps they're captives of a particular ideology: Whatever the conservative or liberal line might be on a given bill, that's where they come down. As with many common perceptions about Congress, there's a germ of truth in all of this, but the reality is far more interesting. 

In fact, before a major vote members of Congress are overwhelmed by differing opinions. They get constituent letters, e-mails, faxes, and telephone calls by the hundreds or even thousands; they have stacks of background material sent out by special-interest groups and think tanks; they can read page after page of testimony collected by congressional committees; colleagues in Congress send out letters with recommendations; the Administration-and, on significant occasions, the President himself-will often weigh in as well. So are members of Congress influenced in their votes by what others tell them? Of course they are-if they're doing their jobs. 

Deciding how to vote is challenging because it involves complicated issues not as simple as the TV “sound bite” makes it out to be and complex interactions between members and everyone from the President to the party leadership to constituents to colleagues to special interest groups to contributors to the media. On some issues, members of Congress will vote their consciences or their own personal assessment of the reasons for the bill; on others, they'll vote what they think are the wishes of most of their constituents; on still others, of less importance to their own districts, they'll stick with their party leaders and other groups-often in hopes of getting support later on bills that matter more to them. Each bill that comes up involves a different calculation-but it always involves a calculation. 

Imagine yourself in Congress, for instance, considering the Justice Department package of some 40 changes to make it easier for law-enforcement officials to fight terrorism. Every day, your office staff has to deal with letters and calls from constituents urging you-in the most heartfelt terms-either to go along in the name of security or to go slowly in the interest of safeguarding basic American liberties. Every day, you hear from a host of experts and interests on both sides of the issue advising you on the right course to take. An easy decision? Hardly. In the end, your vote will be black or white-Aye or Nay-but casting it will involve a thorny analysis of shades of gray. 

And this is just one issue. As a member of Congress, you might cast 400 votes a year on everything from basic constitutional questions to cotton subsidies to tiny changes in a time zone. Though you might become well-versed in a few subjects, you can't possibly get to know them all. Yet on every single one you'll be expected to have an opinion and to be able to defend it. And with lobbyists demanding to see you and constituents never shy about expressing their opinion, finding the time actually to arrive at a decision can be a challenge. 

When I first came to Congress in 1965, journalist James Reston gave a talk to a handful of us in which he said that every now and then, we had to shut the door, ignore the phone, put our feet up on the table and think about what was the right thing to do for the country. Even then, 35 years ago, he knew that was difficult. These days it's next to impossible. Yet almost every day that Congress is in session, 535 men and women struggle to find their way to a moment of clarity about how they'll vote. It's the toughest thing they'll do in their job, and the next day-and the next-they'll have to do it all over again. 

(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.)