By Frank Wessling
Most of us who take summer vacations are home again and back to work. Our representatives in Congress do it differently. Their vacations are now, in August, and they take them back home, at least partially, where they can be refreshed by contact with us, their electors and constituents.
Take advantage of this opportunity. Senators and members of the House of Representatives will set up meetings with voters during this time away from Washington, D.C. They need to hear from us.
What is going well for us? What isn’t? What worries us? What do we want? Deep down, what do we really want for ourselves and our nation?
Members of Congress especially need to hear the hopes and fears of ordinary people, most especially those who feel that they have little or no power. Our politics on the national level can seem remote, both because it makes noise from far away and its influences seem to come from places far above the world of plain folks with modest jobs and modest bankrolls.
The way to overcome that remoteness is to speak up in person when the opportunity comes. Each of us is a reality that members of Congress need to meet. They may not function as well as we wish in representing us, but if our voice is never heard, we deny them a chance to do better.
They most definitely hear the voice of money. For a long time that has been called the oil of politics for good reason. It costs money to campaign for office, so much so that grubbing for money becomes close to a full-time job and the interests of people with money are thus constantly being heard.
In the halls of Congress the big megaphone is held by money and the bigger the money, the bigger the megaphone. The members know that but they don’t easily acknowledge it — until the day of retirement comes around.
Tom Harkin, Iowa’s five-term Democratic senator, announced last January that he would retire after his current term. Part of his reason is that there’s no joy in Congress any more because the members are too busy for working together. What are they busy about?
“The time is so consumed with raising money now,” Harkin said, “that you don’t have time for the kind of personal relationships that so many of us built up over time.”
Harkin’s colleague from Illinois, Senator Dick Durbin, declared last year in an interview that Americans “would be shocked — not surprised, but shocked — if they knew how much time a United States senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money.”
A model daily schedule given to new members by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had four hours for “call time.” That’s four hours every day on the phone asking for money.
The civics lessons some of us learned in school didn’t mention this. We need to know it, though, to counter it with other forms of influence, especially the personal communication of other values from each of us through letters, e-mail, meetings and visits. Action is needed by “little” voters to prevent money from overwhelming our votes.
Assume that the member of Congress or the candidate wants to do the right thing. Help him or her do that with your thoughtful voice, your concerns. Help these men and women keep their integrity when money threatens to pull them apart. Most are decent people with a rough desire for the common good. Be in touch and help them to maintain the fire of that desire.
And a dollar or two in the campaign basket will also be appreciated.