The Frustrations of Congress

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Wednesday, June 13, 2001
I came across a letter the other day from a well-known American politician to his wife. He was not impressed by the perks of his job. "The business of the Congress is tedious beyond expression," he complained. "Every man in it is a great man, an orator, a critic, a statesman; and therefore, every man, upon every question, must show his oratory, his criticism and his political abilities." Turn on C-SPAN any day Congress is in session, and you'll see what the fellow meant. 

What's interesting about this letter, though, is that its writer was John Adams, and he posted it to Abigail from Philadelphia in 1774, while the Continental Congress was in session. It's hard not to be taken aback by his dismay. This was, after all, an extraordinary collection of men bent on the extraordinary business of framing the charter of the new nation. Simply to be a part of it would have been exhilarating, you'd think. 

But then, not much has changed in the 227 years since John Adams wrote that letter. In the popular mind, of course, being a member of Congress seems a glamorous and pampered job. There are the visits to the White House, the travel on Air Force planes, the big speeches, the sense of being at the center of big events and an initiate into the rituals of democracy. Yet as a former congressman, what I remember just as strongly are the job's frustrations: Progress in a legislative body comes very slowly. You do things inch by inch, not mile by mile. The hours can be terribly long — made even longer by the fact that, when Congress is in session, you can never get away from the bells that tell you a vote is in progress and you have to drop whatever you're doing. That would be fine if these were vital matters of state. But in a typical week, you're asked to cast scores of inconsequential votes: procedural votes; votes that were brought up simply to please some tiny constituency; votes that the other party just wants to use to nail you. 

Committee meetings—which is where the work of Congress often gets done—go on without end; and the work itself is tedious, requiring that you go over legislation comma by comma. Constituent demands are unrelenting. If you have a family, you're going to miss a good part of its life, and with the constant travel, airports become as familiar as your home. You cannot plan ahead, whether for an evening off or for vacation, because some event or delay always demands that Congress stay in session longer than planned. After a while, the political posturing and scramble to claim credit for good things—or avoid blame for bad—become increasingly distressing, and the constant maneuvering for partisan advantage ever more disheartening. And for putting up with all this, many members of Congress get paid less than they could make in the private sector, and face harsh and frequent criticism. 

Yet despite it all, the vast majority runs for re-election, and many remain in office for decades. Why do they do this? Are they just gluttons for punishment? I don't think so. Some like the trappings of power in spite of its discomforts and the way the job feeds the ego; most, I think, are truly motivated by the belief that, hard as it is, they can make a difference in the lives of ordinary Americans. They feel the job is ultimately satisfying because they are contributing to the direction and the success of this country. "I have a zeal in my heart, for my country and her friends, which I cannot smother or conceal," John Adams wrote his wife as he headed off to Philadelphia. I don't think much has changed in the 227 years since he wrote those words, either. 

(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.)