As newly-elected freshmen members of Congress descended upon Washington this week, they received large binders of information titled “Hit the Ground Running.” These books contained information on how to administer an office, handle personnel, and, generally speaking, how to be a United States Representative. With the hype and energy carried over from the recent GOP electoral domination, this is also a good time for their constituents themselves to brush up on how to hit the ground running for the 112th Congress. Good managers set goals and expectations for their employees early, yet the manager must hold himself to the same or higher standard if he expects to lead. In that spirit, before we the people give our newest employees marching orders, as citizens it is crucial to set a high standard for proper representation. Let’s focus on five key guidelines to get the new kids on the block on the right track:
1) Resist that tasty pork: The buck stops, and starts, with you. A major Republican, Tea Party, and even moderate Democratic talking point during campaign season was the restriction, or even elimination, of pork-barrel earmark spending. It is believed that Speaker-in-waiting Boehner will make this one of his earliest priorities, but it will take a unified party and constituency to achieve (and maintain). Republicans of late have been among the worst pork abusers, and the pressure is unfortunately often applied from home districts. Naturally, every district desires nice things such as parks, community centers, and theaters, but these should be funded through state and local budgets, public/private partnerships, or purely private contributions. Earmarks are what transform needed federal tools, such as stimulus spending or military funding, into legislative abominations. When citizens stop looking to the U.S. Congress as a local gravy train, representatives will have to unilaterally push for pork, and thus will be held personally responsible by voters.
2) Relish gridlock: The beauty of a divided legislature is that nothing will be accomplished; enjoy it! Markets tend to flourish when the government locks itself into a political stalemate, and the lack of interference may yet lift America out of the economic doldrums. Some will bemoan the lack of “progress,” but, assuredly, the Earth will continue to turn, and civilization will advance (probably at a healthier rate). The Texas State Legislature only meets every other year — and then for just 140 days — and yet, miraculously, Texas has yet to fall into ruin and despair. Do not feel obligated to punish your congressman just because he fails to pin his name on landmark legislation or appear on TV every week. They are there to stand for you, not to create paper monuments to their personal legacy.
3) Obamacare won’t be repealed quickly, if ever: It’s no secret that Obamacare was the driving force behind the sweeping Republican gains in the midterm elections. Citizens are justifiably angry with the legislation and naturally expect campaign promises of repeal to be upheld. The personal nature of the health care debate and the political landscape of the administration and the Senate, however, will prevent any major lawmaking action (at least until 2012). This battle will be fought in federal courts, regulatory agencies, and state governments before it is fought in Congress. Temper your expectations, or expect to be seriously disappointed.
4) Washington will change them: Sometimes, for the worse. Usually, though, the reason politicians “change” after being inside the Beltway is because they realize governing is much harder than it looks. Compromises must be struck with rival factions, special interest groups, and sometimes with one’s own convictions, in order to benefit the greater good. It is a sometimes-unfortunate but natural by-product of public policy. Federal legislators are faced with a delicate balance: serving their very localized populations while simultaneously overseeing a massive republic of over 300 million people. That said, help keep legislators connected to the grassroots and their values by staying engaged and involved with town hall meetings and correspondence.
5) Practice what you preach: Just as politicians are held to their word by voters, the voters themselves must be held to their political demands. If someone is elected to Congress to shrink government and lower spending, do not be shocked or furious if entitlement spending such as Social Security or Medicare is affected. The only path to smaller federal government is gradual withdrawal from governmental dependence by individuals. If the loudest voices continue to demand public services and funding, then public officials will usually be happy to oblige — that’s their job, after all.
Now that you — the constituent, the boss — are ready to manage our esteemed public officials in the 112th U.S. Congress, remember exactly why you cast your ballot a few short weeks ago. Let us now, having lived the recent errors of our ways, retake control of our federal government — and return to an era of individual responsibility. It is only then that those in power will be forced to relent, and true governmental reform may take place.
Justin Kintz is a former George W. Bush administration appointee to the U.S. Department of the Interior, and current Membership and Policy Manager at the European-American Business Council in Washington, D.C. Any views expressed herein are his own and not necessarily those of the EABC nor any other organization of which he is affiliated.