Lead, listen or both?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

“Look, I imagine that there’s theoretically a chance that (we) all went from being radical extremist crazies to Washington sellouts in 12 hours. But maybe a more likely narrative is that we really think that this is a good step for the conservative movement.”

That quote, published in the Washington Post, came from Rep. Mike Mulvaney, R-South Carolina.

Mulvaney is a member of the Freedom Caucus, the group of about 40 conservative Republican congressmen whose demands led to the resignation of Speaker of the House John Boehner. Some thought the group was being too combative and expecting too much. That’s where the “crazies” part comes from.

Most threw their support behind Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whose plenty conservative but also willing to work with the other party, which the speaker of the House must do. When that happened, some of the same people – particularly talk radio hosts and bloggers – who were cheering about Boehner threw a fit because they didn’t like Ryan. That’s when the Freedom Caucus became “sellouts.”

I’m writing this not to defend the Freedom Caucus, but because the quote brought to mind the age-old question: How much should members of Congress lead, and how much should they listen?

The answer, of course, is that they should do both. And when those two realities conflict?

Maybe Benjamin Franklin can help. At the end of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he was leaving Independence Hall when, according to Bartleby.com, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got – a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin required, “A republic if you can keep it.”

Franklin notably did not say “A democracy,” because that is not what the Founding Fathers created. In a democracy, voters make the decisions about their government. In a republic, they elect people to make those decisions, and then oversee them.

There are many wise sayings about letting your conscious be your guide, and not many about seeking only to please others. That’s because no one can twist in the wind forever before finally being blown away.

The same applies to politics. Members of Congress must listen to constituents, but it’s their name on the door. Arkansas’ four U.S. House members each represent 750,000 people, and Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman represent three million. We’re all different, we don’t always know what we want, and sometimes we want too much. We want less government but more government services, with lower taxes. We tend to want freedom, but not so much for those different than we. Two polls about the same issue – but with slightly different wording – can create vastly different results.

A few suggestions, then, for lawmakers.

– Don’t make many promises, particularly when those promises make it harder to accomplish more important goals. Pledges signed as candidates promising to never fill-in-the-blank can be counterproductive. Sometimes you can get a lot by giving a little – but you have to give a little nonetheless. Change takes time.

– Recognize the difference between right and wrong, and correct and less correct. For example, if a lawmaker really believes that abortion or capital punishment are murder, they should take a stand. Whether the top income tax rate should be a few percentage points in one direction or the other? There’s probably an ideal number, but no one knows what that is, and the country can be wrong either way and still be prosperous. If constituents can’t accept that, then they’re just wrong. If a congressman violates his deepest convictions, he is.

– Remember that hard-core true believers with time on their hands tend to speak a lot louder than people busy raising their kids and working for a living.

– Be willing to lead and lose. Somebody’s got to say that we can’t spend money we don’t have. Make the tough calls, and if the voters choose someone else as a result, so be it.

– Be willing to leave. We all can become a little corrupted by our jobs. We’re at our best when we’ve gained experience but not yet become stale or jaded.

And the rest of us? The latest Gallup poll has Congress with a 13 percent approval rating, yet 95 percent of House members were re-elected in 2014. The Senate was a little more competitive at 82 percent. In Arkansas in 2014, voter turnout was barely over 50 percent of registered voters.

Congressmen must listen. It helps when voters speak, without yelling, with a little thoughtful consistency, and most clearly at the ballot box.

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