In 1994, not long before he was about to make history as the first speaker of the House of Representatives in 130 years ousted in a re-election bid in his home congressional district, Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., watched a focus group of constituents. The facilitator asked his voters in eastern Washington about the life of a congressman. An ironworker described what he thought dinner would be like at a congressman’s house: a limousine would take him to a mansion in Georgetown and he would be served a sumptuous meal . . . eating foods the constituent would not recognize and using utensils the average person would not know how to use.
Foley was stunned. The gap between his constituents’ understanding and the reality of his daily routine was shocking. He was probably remembering the tuna sandwich he wolfed down for lunch earlier in the day, snuck in between the 13 meetings and 14-hour day he — and most members of Congress — experienced daily.
Americans possess a limited, and somewhat distorted, view of what it’s like to be a member of Congress. Most news stories feature the negative motivations of legislators and most portrayals of members of Congress by the entertainment industry further reinforce the stereotype that they are lazy, self-interested and corrupt. Members themselves add to the criticism by lauding their own virtues while decrying their colleagues and Congress as an institution. Reality is somewhat different. For most members of Congress, the job is not luxurious or carefree — rather, it’s more like that of the CEO of a small start-up company or the hectic world of an emergency-room physician.
Last week, the Congressional Management Foundation and the Society for Human Resource Management opened a window into the world of an average member of Congress with a new study, “Life in Congress: The Member Perspective.” It is the first research to focus on a member’s viewpoint of his daily activities, challenges and motivations. The results largely corroborate the CMF’s previous research and experience in interacting with legislators and their staffs during our 35-year history. Members work long hours (70 hours a week when Congress is in session), endure unequaled public scrutiny and criticism, and sacrifice family time to fulfill work responsibilities.
As is often the case with a novel research project, these findings raise several questions about how members fulfill their public service responsibilities. For example, a solid history of research exists on the negative effects of stress and long work hours for professions such as firefighters, airline pilots and physicians. Do high levels of stress and work hours lead to similar outcomes for members of Congress and affect the functionality of Congress? Are members’ long work hours and personal trade-offs sustainable? Or are they leading to increased job burnout and more members leaving Congress — reducing the professionalism, effectiveness and institutional memory of the Congress? Does the members’ focus on the districts (traveling home weekly, understanding constituents’ interests, accomplishing goals) and de-emphasis on building relationships with fellow lawmakers contribute to reduced comity and effectiveness within the institution?
This research should not be construed as an assessment of Congress’ productivity or output. One should not confuse activity with accomplishment. Congress is decried as ineffective and suffers from historically low approval ratings. Yet that raises another question: If this “workforce” of Congress is made up of people with good intentions, working incredibly long hours, but still coming up with a work product that is not acceptable to their employers (constituents), what does that say about Congress as an institution?
We hope this research gives the public a broader understanding of Congress, and offers congressional leaders, members, staff and supporting institutions some insight into how to enhance operations. Internally, a discussion of Congress as a workplace could lead to additional changes focused on improving the effectiveness of individual legislators and the institution. Externally, a discussion of Congress as a workplace could lead to greater public insight into our democratic processes, possibly strengthening trust in government.
If we view our public servants as objects, faceless and nameless creatures, it is much easier to deride their work and motivations. But if we view our legislators the way we’d view a co-worker — someone with whom we may not always agree, but nonetheless we respect their sacrifice and effort — then perhaps public appreciation of and satisfaction with our democratic institutions could be enhanced. This is not to suggest that examining workplace issues in Congress is somehow a panacea for what ails our democracy. Yet, if greater knowledge of “civics” is widely accepted as a cure for a dysfunctional democratic dialogue and process, then constituent understanding of Congress as a workplace is one small part of that cure.
This op-ed was orginially posted in Roll Call and can be read here.