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Wednesday, August 14, 2002
Back in 1847, not long after he arrived in the House of Representatives for his lone two-year term there, Abraham Lincoln made what seemed like an enormous political gaffe. President James K. Polk had embroiled the U.S. in a war with Mexico the year before, following an ostensibly unprovoked attack on American forces by Mexican troops. Lincoln would have none of it. He denounced the conflict as an act of U.S. aggression, speculating that the President had been motivated by a desire for military glory, “the attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood,” as he put it. 

It was a flash of partisan oratory a more mature Lincoln would later reject, and it left his critics unmoved. Not only was he unpatriotic, they charged, but he had clearly lost touch with the people of Illinois in the short time he’d spent in Washington. The war, they pointed out, was popular back home; Lincoln might as well hang up his hat as a politician. 

Abe Lincoln turned out to have a political career ahead of him anyway, suggesting that the criticisms might have been overblown, but there’s no denying the weight they carried: Other than a charge of moral or ethical misbehavior, being accused of losing touch with the home folks is about the worst accusation a member of Congress can face. Voters do not want their representatives to be seduced by the charms of Washington, DC, or to forget where they came from. 

This is a sentiment I understand, but I’d like to suggest that it can be carried too far. In fact, if your representative in Congress doesn’t catch a mild case of “Potomac Fever,” then he or she isn’t doing a good job. Let me explain. 

Our form of government is based on the notion that members of Congress owe constituents their best judgment on the issues of the day. They’re there because, in essence, we hire them to do for us several things we would be hard-pressed to do ourselves: to study and ponder policy alternatives, to be our advocates within the halls of the federal government, and to help the communities we live in understand the choices facing the country. What you’re doing with your vote, in other words, is selecting an able politician not just to represent your point of view, but also to learn from his or her colleagues and come back to help make you a better informed citizen. 

The truth is, arriving in Washington is always a shock-the issues are much more complex than they seemed back on the political hustings. You begin to meet national leaders, the politicians and others who shape public opinion. You hear constantly from the best experts the country can bring together on a given topic. You learn from-and are usually impressed by-your colleagues, the majority of whom are talented, deeply informed, and quite persuasive. You find yourself confronted daily with knowledgeable lobbyists, aggressive journalists who do not accept platitudes for answers, and colleagues with deeply held convictions, all of whom test and challenge your views at every step, forcing you to articulate and defend them. It’s the big leagues, and if you don’t learn quickly how to play in them, no one in Washington will take you seriously. 

Now, there are plenty of people who would say that’s not such a bad thing. But think about it. If you can’t make the case for your point of view in the toughest political arena in the country, then aren’t you falling short as a representative? If your colleagues discount your opinions on the issues they care about, then why should they pay attention to the issues you care about? Being a good representative, in other words, means learning to hold your own in the Nation’s Capital. 

Inevitably, this means that a member of Congress will have to adjust his or her local orientation to do the job right. The opinions of the folks back home should always carry great weight-after all, home, not Washington, is his or her political base. But the Congress is, in the final analysis, a deliberative body, and its members’ judgments should be made after hearing and weighing all the arguments, not just those from constituents. We shouldn’t be criticizing our representatives for exposing themselves to these other voices-we should be criticizing them if they don’t. 

To be sure, there are members of Congress who go overboard, becoming so seduced by Washington that they forget what it’s like to live the lives of their constituents. But there are also members of Congress who spend their days so determined not to listen to “Washington” that they develop no influence whatever. The conundrum of our form of government is that our representatives must seek to give voice to our interests, but in order to do so they must seek influence and power in Washington. The best representatives are those who recognize that tension, and try to achieve a balance. 

(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.)