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Fitch: What Really Motivates Members of Congress?

In recent months, it seems that a week hasn’t gone by when another spate of news stories appears on how Members of Congress are seemingly using public office for personal gain.

First, there was a new book alleging that Members were using “insider” information on potential policy shifts and engaging in stock trades based on that information. Then, the Washington Post did a series of articles implying that Members of Congress used the practice of earmarks to fund projects near property they owned, enhancing their value.

The Congressional Management Foundation has worked closely with individual Members, their staffs and the institution for 35 years. We likely have a broader and closer insight into how Members think and make decisions than any other organization in Washington. Hundreds of offices have participated in CMF-facilitated planning sessions, each spanning a period of months. And more than 350 Congressional offices participated in CMF programs in 2011 alone. The Congress that the CMF sees is vastly different from the one portrayed in the media.

CMF research, our collective experience and off-the-record interviews with Members and staff suggest that Congress is more noble than portrayed. I know that flies in the face of conventional wisdom — and Members of Congress themselves share some of the blame for heaping doses of disparagement on their own institution. Yet Congress is actually made up of hardworking public servants who are mostly motivated by what is in the best interests of their constituents.

One Member summed it up perfectly when asked what drives his decision-making. He said, “The three H’s — head, heart and health [political].” When you break those down, you get at what really motivates Members of Congress.

Head: Members of Congress are wonks. They are Type A personalities who love nothing more than studying an issue, coming up with a policy solution and imposing it on the rest of us. They devour independent research, treasure private meetings with knowledgeable experts and crave nothing more than a quiet two hours curled up next to the latest Congressional Research Service report.

I asked one Member about a difficult decision he had made recently, and he told me he was changing his position on cap-and-trade energy legislation — from opposing it to actively seeking a compromise.

“Wow,” I said, “aren’t you from a coal-producing state?” He said, “Oh yes.” I asked, “What sparked your change of heart?” He pointed to a large stack of reports in the corner of the office and said, “I read the UN reports on climate change.”

Heart: When a Member of Congress meets a constituent who could be or is affected by a public policy, something very important happens. He or she feels a bond to that constituent — an obligation to make the best decision possible because someone’s life will be changed as a result of it.

One Member told me a compelling story about how he had changed his position on federal funding for stem cell research, from being on the fence to supporting it. As this was a pro-life Republican, I asked him what catalyst caused the shift. He said a group of families who had children with Type 1 diabetes came during a national group’s advocacy day in Washington. One teenager talked about his life, how he coped with the disease and his hope that the research could someday lead to a cure.  “It was just one of those meetings that had a huge impact,” the Congressman said.

Health: Lest we not forget, Members of Congress are politicians. And all politicians will say, “I can’t do good if I don’t get re-elected.” They also long for the approval of others. One Member told me, “I think Congress is just made up of a bunch of middle children still trying to please their father.” Their radar is on overdrive, combing data sources in search of local public opinion. Members of Congress are the best pollsters in the world because they’re the only pollsters who, if they get the answer wrong, lose their jobs.

The CMF conducted two surveys of Congressional staff in 2005 and 2010 and asked the same question: “If your Member/Senator has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue, how much influence might the following advocacy strategies directed to the Washington office have on his/her decision?” In both surveys, the top answer was “in-person visit from a constituent.”

But the most telling indicator of Congressional decision-making comes from an unlikely source. In the past 20 years, I’ve often supervised interns in Congressional offices and in the private sector. And at the end of their tenure, I always asked the same question: “What belief or stereotype about Washington and Congress was debunked during your time here?” The most common answer went something like this: “I was surprised at how much you people wrestle with trying to figure out the right thing to do and how much you worry about the impact of your decisions on constituents.”

If you spend a little time in the real Congress — not the one you see on the front pages or in the movies — you’ll come to the same conclusion.

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and author of “Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials.”

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