Serving in Congress - Then and Now
A soon-to-be retiring member of the House looks at the high cost of maintaining political altitude
AS I begin my final year in Congress before retiring, I look back 15 years and realize how very much the "rules of play" for congressmen have changed.Skip to next paragraph
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Shortly after I assumed office in 1977, a senior colleague counseled me: "Don, pay attention to your constituent newsletters - they will re-elect you."
My colleague's advice reflected his experience as a congressman during the 1960s and 1970s. It was good advice, but even as it was given, it had already begun losing its relevancy. Today, it almost seems quaint.
Back then, three or four newsletters per year from one's congressman made a real impact. Today, the ways in which citizens learn about Congress and their representatives are vastly different.
Furthermore, citizen attitudes about the news they receive regarding Congress reflect critical social and economic changes in the United States.
From the 1950s into the 1970s, America was expanding and prospering. Federal revenue grew even faster than the nation's economy. Congress could enact new social programs without trimming back existing programs and without hiking the federal debt significantly. Presidents, both Republican and Democratic, cheerfully signed legislation creating the new programs. In times of recession, taxes could be cut and public works boosted.
In short, the news from Congress was mostly good, and it was reported to citizens mainly by the print media - newspapers and magazines - which had the time and space to provide depth and perspective to readers who in turn had the time and inclination to pay attention.
Politically, there was relative stability. Citizens generally identified with one major political party or the other. Local political organizations had active adherents and made a real difference in elections. Campaigns for Congress were straightforward, moderate in cost, and predictable.
Then a number of things occurred to profoundly affect how congressional campaigns are run and national laws are made.
Chief among them was the growth of television, which began to hit its stride in the 1970s as an influence on Congress. I can think of at least four ways TV has changed the political landscape.
For starters, it has helped distract Americans from former norms of civic responsibility. In some areas more than 54 cable TV channels now tempt citizens away from civic involvement and away from reading newspapers, magazines, and books that might give them more knowledge and perspective regarding public affairs. The average American family now watches roughly 50 hours of TV each week.
Second, the networks tend to trivialize news from Congress. Essentially, television is an entertainment medium, and that truth is manifest in network news broadcasts. Most Americans, especially young people, now get the bulk of their news from TV. In my view, they are poorly served by 30-minute newscasts in which each news item receives a minute or two of air time.
Third, 30-second TV commercials have, since the mid-1970s, become the dominant force in closely fought congressional elections.
When voters enter the booth on election day, they likely will have been influenced more by a two-week string of negative TV spots than by two years of legislative effort, personal campaigning, newspaper articles, newsletters, and candidate forums. It is not TV's fault that 30-second spots are so powerful, but the power has an immeasurable punch at the polls.
Finally, 30-second commercials pack a one-two punch, and the second is their enormous cost - a single spot on one station in a major media market can cost more than $10,000. Representatives and their challengers must reckon not only with the power of TV ads but with the necessity of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for them.
Mention of campaign fund-raising calls to mind political action committees and the interest groups that organize PACs. Many members have turned to PACs for needed funds, thereby endowing them with greater importance.
Like television, PACs have developed over two decades into a major influence on Congress. Through the use of ever more sophisticated computer data banks, Americans are constantly encouraged to act according to pecuniary or "hot button" individual interests with little regard to community or national interests.
In contrast to earlier periods, interest groups are now a significant source of information to voters regarding Congress. To be sure, the information is fragmented, with each interest group reporting only congressional action and individual representatives' votes on issues of concern to its members. But information is conveyed. A member of Congress must assume that each vote cast gets reported back home to the constituents who care most about that particular vote.