How to be A Congressperson

By Merrill Ring

Despite remarks to the contrary, the idea that an elected official can have an impact not by crafting pieces of legislation but by talking, by saying what needs to be said, is very important to having major political significance.

Former Senator Claire McGaskill (D-MO), defeated in the last election, criticized incoming Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in an exit interview. While some of the criticism is clearly sour grapes and some of it petty dislike of AOC’s popularity, there is one matter of substance that should be noted. McGaskill claimed that she did not know “what she’s [AOC] done yet to generate that kind of enthusiasm”.

McGaskill knew perfectly well what the new congress member had done – what she can’t figure out is why what she had done should be so worth noticing, so worthy of public and media attention.

What she had done, from McGaskill’s point of view, is talk. What she hadn’t (yet) done is accomplish anything. “The rhetoric is cheap – getting results is a lot harder.”

What picture of an elected official does McGaskill have? It is that if elected you don’t say much – you put your nose to the grindstone and work with your legislative colleagues to develop legislation that makes its way into law (or you investigate malefactors) – when you’ve done that happens, then (and only then) you can talk.

Let’s call that ‘the worker bee conception of being an elected official’.

I once heard Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) express that conception when he was telling a group why he supported Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for President (over Bernie Sanders). Schatz said that she worked day and night alongside fellow legislators writing pieces of legislation.

Now I have no doubt that that is an admirable way of serving in a legislative body. But is that kind of political work a recommendation for being President of the U.S.? Is the President of the country an office designed for policy wonks and worker bees?

One of the major criticisms of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign is that she had no vision to articulate, a vision that tied together all the various particular programs that she knew so well and advocated so clearly. Surely it is more important that a President have a vision of where the country is and what it needs to be, as well as thoughts as to how to get from here to there: and then have the rhetorical ability to express to citizens that vision.

AOC in her short career in Congress has excited the public because she proposes out loud what needs to be done – her explanation and defense of a Green New Deal, of seriously taxing the ultra-wealthy – and because she is not a worker bee but is capable of talking about matters which interest the public, but which escape the standard McGaskill/Schatz idea of what an ideal legislator should be. (Incidentally in her legislative function of asking questions in hearings, AOC has showed that she has worked more than others in preparing the questions she will ask. Most House members take their questioning time to be a chance to pontificate.)