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OPINION: One of Congress’s Most Important Jobs Has Become Much Harder

By Lee Hamilton


In the pantheon of writings about Congress, California Rep. Katie Porter’s new book will almost certainly draw attention for her unvarnished takes on the institution and her colleagues. In “I Swear: Politics is Messier Than My Minivan,” Porter finds plenty of targets, including her fellow House members, staffers, lobbyists — and how a seat in Congress is increasingly out of reach for ordinary Americans. “Congress is full of multimillionaires for the same reason that the NBA is full of tall people,” Porter, a single working mother, writes. “It’s easier to get recruited and win with such advantages.”

 That’s all good fodder for commentary, but the line that really drew my attention is one that probably won’t get much notice. “As I see it,” Porter writes, “the real work of Congress is civic education.”

I agree. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the job of members of Congress is to educate their constituents, colleagues, or Americans as a whole, but the plain truth is that they can’t be effective as representatives or as politicians on Capitol Hill unless they do. Serving as trustworthy sources of facts and analysis ought to be a key part of every legislator’s responsibilities, both in their chambers and at home.

 There are a number of reasons for this. The issues Congress deals with are often complicated and full of nuance, but even on some of the most basic facts, there’s widespread misunderstanding. No, foreign aid is not a significant part of the U.S. budget; it’s less than 1 percent. No, undocumented immigrants aren’t disproportionately responsible for crimes, compared to native-born Americans. No, China doesn’t own more than half of U.S. debt; in fact, the largest foreign holder of the debt, at least as of late last year, was Japan, but even it pales in comparison to the almost 22 percent of that debt held by the federal government itself (Social Security is a big player) and the 20 percent held by the Federal Reserve system.

 My point here is not to bombard you with facts, but to say that they matter when policy is being formulated. That’s especially true in Congress, where the starting point for reaching some sort of compromise on any given issue is being able to agree on a common set of facts. To build consensus, you have to clear misperceptions out of the way In such a politically diverse body it’s hard enough to hammer out an agreement when everyone agrees on the basics, but it’s impossible when the players can’t even find common ground on the facts.

This holds equally true when members of Congress and political candidates try to explain their positions or build support for them with the public. Voters are inundated with “information,” some of it reliable, much of it not. Our system asks them to sort through it and arrive at conclusions about what’s best for their communities and the country as a whole. Legislators have access to a broad array of trustworthy information and analysis, and in an ideal world would play a key part in helping ordinary Americans work through and understand the issues in front of them.

 But, of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. Many powerful groups — some legitimate, some malign — seek to manipulate public opinion, and they’re very good at it. Even worse, some members of Congress and of state legislatures in recent years have shown themselves less interested in purveying facts than in spreading politically convenient misinformation. For politicians who are dedicated to communicating the facts and what they mean for policy, the sheer cacophony of misleading information and trolling by their colleagues makes things much more difficult.

 This does not mean, however, that politicians should just throw up their hands. In the end, representative democracy is a dialogue between citizens seeking to make good judgments and elected officials determined to help them do so. Politicians who are devoted to understanding the facts that underlie complex issues and then to explaining them to the public at large perform a vital service in our democracy; they deserve our respect and support.               

Lee Hamilton, 92, 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.