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Fitch: What Really Motivates Members of Congress?

One Member told me a compelling story about how he had changed his position on federal funding for stem cell research, from being on the fence to supporting it. As this was a pro-life Republican, I asked him what catalyst caused the shift. He said a group of families who had children with Type 1 diabetes came during a national group’s advocacy day in Washington. One teenager talked about his life, how he coped with the disease and his hope that the research could someday lead to a cure.  “It was just one of those meetings that had a huge impact,” the Congressman said.

Health: Lest we not forget, Members of Congress are politicians. And all politicians will say, “I can’t do good if I don’t get re-elected.” They also long for the approval of others. One Member told me, “I think Congress is just made up of a bunch of middle children still trying to please their father.” Their radar is on overdrive, combing data sources in search of local public opinion. Members of Congress are the best pollsters in the world because they’re the only pollsters who, if they get the answer wrong, lose their jobs.

The CMF conducted two surveys of Congressional staff in 2005 and 2010 and asked the same question: “If your Member/Senator has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue, how much influence might the following advocacy strategies directed to the Washington office have on his/her decision?” In both surveys, the top answer was “in-person visit from a constituent.”

But the most telling indicator of Congressional decision-making comes from an unlikely source. In the past 20 years, I’ve often supervised interns in Congressional offices and in the private sector. And at the end of their tenure, I always asked the same question: “What belief or stereotype about Washington and Congress was debunked during your time here?” The most common answer went something like this: “I was surprised at how much you people wrestle with trying to figure out the right thing to do and how much you worry about the impact of your decisions on constituents.”

If you spend a little time in the real Congress — not the one you see on the front pages or in the movies — you’ll come to the same conclusion.

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and author of “Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials.”

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