The Rewards of Public Service

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Tuesday, January 16, 2001
Having just gone through a campaign season in which the quirks, private lives, and unguarded remarks of those running for Congress were subject to intense media scrutiny, while the candidates often endured grueling campaign schedules, harsh personal attacks, and seemingly endless strings of fundraisers, you're bound at some point to find yourself asking, Why on earth would anyone want the job in the first place? 

Good question. As a former member of Congress, I can tell you that being there is often wildly exasperating. You're tagged as part of a "do-nothing Congress" while working long, sometimes brutal, hours. You're accused of going to Congress just to enrich yourself, yet you get paid less than you could make in the private sector. You're condemned as a pawn of special interests, while you worry constantly that some small error in judgment, tactics, or analysis of policy might cause great damage to your constituents or even the country as a whole. And then you're disparaged for ignoring your constituents while you spend far more time in public meetings on weekends than with your own family. So who, except for the most power-crazed or egotistical, would want to put up with this? 

It's risky to say this in these cynical times, but in my experience most people come into Congress with a sense of idealism. They have a commitment to public service and they want to do good — to help their constituency, their state, and their country as each of them sees it. There is a certain camaraderie among them — even if they're ideological opponents — that stems from the fact that they are engaged in the common pursuit of making this a better country. The satisfactions of public service can be enormous, and if you can understand them, you'll understand a bit more about what drives Washington. 

Let's begin with the obvious: It's not all selfless devotion to the common good. Being a member of Congress is immensely flattering. People pay attention to you. They seek out your opinion, invite you to all kinds of fancy functions, and ask you to give speeches. And then there's the power that goes with public office– putting your imprint on policies that affect millions of people in this country and abroad, steering money to medical research or weapons systems or other causes you hold dear, or getting a highway built at home, or a new bridge, or a hospital wing. All of that has obvious appeal. 

But you quickly learn after taking public office that power and ego gratification are hardly guaranteed. Paul Douglas, the great Senator from Illinois, once commented that when he was elected to the Senate he came with the idea of saving the world. After a few years, he decided he'd be content with saving the United States. After ten years in office he hoped he could save Illinois, and when he left he thought he might be able to save the Indiana Dunes, a beautiful stretch of the Lake Michigan shoreline. The truth is, the governing process is inclusive and messy, and progress is usually made inch by inch. Setbacks are at least as common as triumphs. 

Yet here's the funny thing: Far from driving people out of politics, the give and take of public life is usually what most satisfies them. There is a pervasive sense on Capitol Hill that it is where the issues of greatest importance to the nation are being sorted out. Sometimes this is misplaced, but often it is not. Because one of the other things you quickly learn in office is that after two hundred years, we are still struggling over the questions that aroused the passions of this country's founding generation. How much power should the federal government be given? How far should government go in regulating our affairs or trying to better our lives? How do we resolve the tension between encouraging individual liberty and initiative, and buttressing a central government strong enough to promote justice for all? People like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison tangled over these same questions. And our system's strength rests in part on the fact that these matters are subject for debate every time a new federal budget comes to a vote or a major presidential initiative gets introduced on Capitol Hill. When you arrive in Congress, you get a chance to take part in that ongoing debate, and in our great experiment with democracy. 

Small wonder that former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once said, "To leave public life is to die a little." 

(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.)