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Fitch: What Really Motivates Members of Congress?

In recent months, it seems that a week hasn’t gone by when another spate of news stories appears on how Members of Congress are seemingly using public office for personal gain.

First, there was a new book alleging that Members were using “insider” information on potential policy shifts and engaging in stock trades based on that information. Then, the Washington Post did a series of articles implying that Members of Congress used the practice of earmarks to fund projects near property they owned, enhancing their value.

The Congressional Management Foundation has worked closely with individual Members, their staffs and the institution for 35 years. We likely have a broader and closer insight into how Members think and make decisions than any other organization in Washington. Hundreds of offices have participated in CMF-facilitated planning sessions, each spanning a period of months. And more than 350 Congressional offices participated in CMF programs in 2011 alone. The Congress that the CMF sees is vastly different from the one portrayed in the media.

CMF research, our collective experience and off-the-record interviews with Members and staff suggest that Congress is more noble than portrayed. I know that flies in the face of conventional wisdom — and Members of Congress themselves share some of the blame for heaping doses of disparagement on their own institution. Yet Congress is actually made up of hardworking public servants who are mostly motivated by what is in the best interests of their constituents.

One Member summed it up perfectly when asked what drives his decision-making. He said, “The three H’s — head, heart and health [political].” When you break those down, you get at what really motivates Members of Congress.

Head: Members of Congress are wonks. They are Type A personalities who love nothing more than studying an issue, coming up with a policy solution and imposing it on the rest of us. They devour independent research, treasure private meetings with knowledgeable experts and crave nothing more than a quiet two hours curled up next to the latest Congressional Research Service report.

I asked one Member about a difficult decision he had made recently, and he told me he was changing his position on cap-and-trade energy legislation — from opposing it to actively seeking a compromise.

“Wow,” I said, “aren’t you from a coal-producing state?” He said, “Oh yes.” I asked, “What sparked your change of heart?” He pointed to a large stack of reports in the corner of the office and said, “I read the UN reports on climate change.”

Heart: When a Member of Congress meets a constituent who could be or is affected by a public policy, something very important happens. He or she feels a bond to that constituent — an obligation to make the best decision possible because someone’s life will be changed as a result of it.

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