The famous comedian Groucho Marx once commented that Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies. This is a good description of modern politics. Politicians look to be the answer to every societal problem. Once they find the problem they were looking for, they diagnose the problem with politically expedient solutions. In our quest to answer what makes a good representative, we need to find the person who has the opposite qualities of those given by Groucho Marx.
A good representative needs to process three qualities. First, the instinct and drive To be out in front of the significant issues of our time. Second, they must put in the work necessary to know the policies currently being debated better than their colleagues. Finally, they must balance the hill style and a home-style while not being bound only to their local community’s concerns.
A good representative must possess the drive to be out in front of the major issues. This might seem like a quality that every politician in the age of social media has. But we clarify this point that the representative must be front-and-center, highlighting significant issues. Not someone as Groucho Marx would say, looking for trouble and finding it everywhere. An excellent example of this would be Texas congressman Ron Paul who, for years before the 2008 financial crisis, was telling anyone who would listen that we are in for a crash.
In 2003 Paul introduced the Free Housing Market Enhancement Act by saying, “Congress should act to remove taxpayer support from the housing GSEs before the bubble bursts and taxpayers are once again forced to bail out investors who were misled by foolish government interference in the market” (Callaghan & Writer, 2012). He was out in front of a problem that no one wanted to hear; rather than making a politically expedient proposal, he tried to solve the issue.
It is not enough to have good intentions and want to make a difference in government. A good politician must also be a great policy analyst. Former Speaker of the House Wisconsin congressman, Paul Ryan, was known as a policy wonk who knew his subject matter better than anyone else in Washington. He became a policy “rock star” among the republican party after authoring a federal budget plan that advocated personal accounts for Social Security, vouchers for Medicare, and freezing most domestic spending.
During his ten terms in Congress, Ryan showed that one must become a good policy analyst to be successful in Washington. Bill Whalen, a fellow at the conservative think tank Hoover Institute, said of Ryan that “he’s someone interested in big ideas and hungry for information” (Quinn, 2012). Rep. Ryan took the lead in designing conservative counter-proposals to extreme liberal positions. This will enhance your ability to become a subject matter expert on the most urgent policy matters and help avoid having your voice being drowned out by the 434 other members of congress.
The last and perhaps more important quality of a representative is their ability to balance a representative’s Capitol hill style with their home style. If a representative wishes to have a long career in Washington, they need to gain their local constituents’ trust and show that they can work with the other members of Congress, particularly those in their own political party. To enact your desired policy goals, you must first be elected to office. On average, between 2010 and 2017, Congress was in session for 110 days a year, about one out of three days.
Members spend much of the rest of their time at home among their constituents. Speaker Sam Rayburn, D-Tex., once remarked, “A congressman has two constituencies — he has his constituents at home, and his colleagues here in the House. To serve his constituents at home, he must also serve his colleagues here in the House” (Davidson et al., 1989). Representatives would like to devote more time to lawmaking and other Capitol Hill duties, but the press of constituency business is relentless.
A good example of a politician lacking a coherent home-style approach is former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. The first House majority Leader to be unseated in a Primary. On the hill, he was a Republican Party leader, but at home, he grew unpopular. One of his aides told a local activist, “Eric Cantor will never hold a town hall meeting. Over my dead body! You hear me?” (Davidson et al., 2018).
This lack of balance between the Hill and the representative's local community will eventually lead to a ballot box defeat. Being accessible to your constituents will give you a great chance of staying in office and allow you to ensure not only that your local community is being property represented in Washington but that you can accomplish your own policy goals.
A politician must rise above the noise in Washington, DC, in a world full of social media sound bites in 240 character posts on Twitter. The ideal representative is a forward-thinking problem solver and a person who genuinely cares about their local community. to be effective in any policy debate, did you get your message heard. They must possess the Instinct and desire to lead from the front of major policy issues.
Leading from the front does not only imply getting your face on primetime cable news outlets. The ideal representative will be a great policy analyst who possesses the knowledge they and their constituents believed to be necessary. Finally, a good representative regularly meets with their local community to discover essential issues and concerns and to ensure they don’t become too distant from the people.
Callaghan, P., & Writer, M. P. S. (2012, February 2). Ron Paul saw this financial mess coming. MinnPost. https://www.minnpost.com/politics-policy/2008/09/ron-paul-saw-financial-mess-coming/.
Davidson, R. H., & Oleszek, W. J. (1989). The Two Congresses. In Congress and Its Members (p. 5). essay.
Davidson, R. H., Oleszek, W. J., Lee, F. E., & Schickler, E. (2018). The Two Congresses. In Congress and its members (p. 3). essay, CQ Press.
Quinn, M. (2012, October 11). Paul Ryan’s wonk appeal. https://www.politico.com/story/2012/10/paul-ryans-wonk-appeal-082297.