As a former Congressman, I’m as frustrated with our nation’s leaders as the general public.
The May 2013 RealClearPolitics average polling showed President Obama with a 47.1 percent approval rating and 48.9 percent disapproval. The May 2013 Pew Research Center poll had Congressional Republican leaders at 22 percent approval and Democratic leaders at 32 percent. Last month’s Gallup Poll approval rating for Congress was 16 percent. All three polls testify to the low opinion most Americans have of representatives in government. Another poll ranked colonoscopies and cockroaches ahead of Congress.
Here’s some friendly advice for elected leaders as they work to win back public support and actually try to solve our nation’s problems:
1. Most incumbents distribute impersonal mass emails asking constituents how to solve national issues. Elected officials should be more knowledgeable than the public, and express their judgments about what’s best for our country and what we need to do, without relying on polls. Officials worthy of the office they hold should have a finger on the people’s pulse. Don’t ask input only from supporters. Include other views. Everyone likes to be personally asked for advice. Mr. Obama has utterly failed at this.
2. Leaders should walk alone, unpretentiously without staff, through the towns and cities of their state or district personally seeking input. Visit small businesses and post offices unannounced, go to church and frequent other public places directly asking constituents for their thoughts about policy issues. Varying opinions and some good ideas will surface, but most of all, voters will know leaders care about doing a good job for all the people they represent.
3. When necessary, stand against Congressional leadership (note again their low approval ratings above) in favor of your constituents. Voters elect leaders to exercise their own best judgments, not to be puppets for their party. I recall the trouble I had with Republican House leadership when I pushed to end 50 years of unilateral American sanctions on Cuba. Yet Eastern Washington farmers needed the Cuban market for products such as apples, peas and lentils. With help from Democrats, other Republicans, farmers and humanitarians, we changed the law and millions of dollars of 5th District products were sold to Cuba. Fighting for constituents may anger Congressional leaders, but it will endear a Congressional representative to people at home.
4. Those wanting to simply hold a Congressional job infrequently come home from Washington, D.C., instead telling every interest group exactly what they want to hear, never venturing a new opinion — and saying little beyond party talking points. But if leaders want public trust, they should attend major public events at home, especially parades, and be a thought leader. The public will recognize those who care enough to come home. Plus, parades celebrate communities, so personal presence means one respects the community celebration. If leaders don’t show up, it suggests they don’t care.
5. Leaders should spend one evening each week going through the phone book, randomly telephoning their constituents at home — just to talk. Some rudeness may result, but a representative will be remembered for reaching out. Former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond practiced this and was always popular — he genuinely loved his constituents, and they knew it, faithfully returning him to office.
6. Expect and demand integrity and accountability from federal workers without simplistically criticizing government. The current scandals involving IRS political targeting, Benghazi inaction and Associated Press criminality are outrageous and stain government workers. Yes, government is generally too big and spends too much, but wide swipes at government workers unfairly impugn responsible federal workers who honorably try to serve the public good. Elected officials should periodically stroll through government offices alone, chatting firsthand with workers there to fully understand what they do and how they do it — all will be enlightened.
7. Adopt an 80/20 or even 60/40 rule for solving problems, not the “I win everything and you win nothing” attitude that now prevails in Congress and the presidency. In spite of interest group insistence on total victory, elected officials serve best with the broadest base — and need to focus most on problem-solving and records of accomplishment. Neither party has a guaranteed corner on wisdom — some meritorious ideas may come from the other side — they vote, too, and like the Cuba example above, someday their vote will be important to your constituents.
Citizens are disgusted with self-serving and polarizing conduct of elected officials and resulting inaction on our nation’s unsolved, nagging problems. Americans deserve attentive and wise leaders.