Right now, all across the country, politicians who were just elected to Congress or their state legislature for the first time are reveling in their victories. It’s an intoxicating time — and I can tell you, when you win an election, it feels like the world is at your fingertips. People are calling, texting, and emailing; you’re in great demand, and nothing seems impossible.
But as exciting as it is, I’m also reminded after every election of a letter John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, back in 1774, when the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia. “The business of the Congress is tedious beyond expression,” he wrote. “This assembly is like no other that ever existed. 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.”
Allowing for the passage of time and a changed Congress, Adams still captured something essential — for all the rewards of serving in office, the job carries with it a lot of frustrations. The challenge for any newly elected official is to learn to accept them.
For one thing, progress in any legislative body — from Congress to a town council —comes slowly; it’s a matter of inches over months or years, not miles over days. Debates drag on and political posturing is annoying and endless. (If Adams thought it was bad in the 1770s, he couldn’t possibly imagine what the age of TV cameras and social media has wrought.) Sometimes it feels as if a given initiative spends more time getting sidetracked than resolved.
Moreover, as anyone who has served in elected office can tell you, the hours can be brutal. Days begin early, finish late, and it almost never feels as if there are enough hours to get everything done. This is especially true for those quiet legislators who do get the actual hard work done, which can be tedious. It demands mastering the subject at hand, negotiating with colleagues and interest groups, and then going over legislation as carefully as possible — often line by line and word by word. Moreover, if you’re interested in substantive policymaking, then the legislative process — with its endless duplication of votes and constant inconsequential resolutions that were drafted to please some minor constituency — can drive you to distraction.
For all these reasons, other parts of a legislator’s life can take a back seat — family events, baptisms, ballgames, and even vacations. It’s hard to plan ahead when every day can bring a new crisis or development that requires attention, and I well remember times in Congress when some late-breaking event required staying in session past the start of the summer recess and having no choice but to shake my head as we gave up some lakeside cabin we’d reserved.
And then, of course, there are a legislator’s colleagues. It’s not unusual to watch aghast as one or another postures for the cameras or grabs credit for work that — almost always — required a collective effort. On the whole, it often feels as though the maneuvering for political advantage in Congress and many legislatures has grown more aggressive than it used to be, both in terms of hardball partisan tactics and members’ own elbow-throwing efforts to garner attention. That doesn’t bring out the best in people, and it can make it tougher to make meaningful progress on addressing national and state challenges.
By now, I’d guess you’re wondering why anyone would want the job. The answer, of course, is simple — because if you believe in representative government and in helping to make your community, state, or nation better, there’s no better place to be than in the thick of things. For all the frustrations and setbacks, there are also heady moments when some long-sought goal suddenly comes into view. There is the pleasure of meeting as broad a cross-section of America as you could hope to find. And above all, there’s the satisfaction of knowing that, even if it’s just in a small way, you played a role in improving the lives of your fellow citizens.
Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.