Members of Congress get categorized in all sorts of ways. They’re liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat; interested in domestic affairs or specialists in foreign policy.
There’s one important category, though, that I never hear discussed: whether a member wants to be an inside player or an outside player. Yet where members fall on the continuum helps to shape the institution of Congress.
Insiders focus on making the institution work. They give fewer speeches on the floor, issue fewer press releases, and spend less time considering how to play the public relations game or how to raise money. Instead, they put in long, tedious hours on developing legislation, attending hearings, listening to experts, exploring policy options, and working on building consensus. They’re the ones who do the necessary work of legislating.
Outsiders pass through the institution of Congress, but many of them are using Congress — and especially the House of Representatives — as a stepping-stone to another office: the Senate, a governorship, the presidency.
On Capitol Hill, these people behave very differently from insiders. They raise money aggressively, put a lot of effort into developing a public persona, and are consumed with public relations. They travel a lot. They churn out press releases and speak on the floor on every topic they can find something to deliver an opinion about. They miss votes more frequently than insiders, and often do not attend committee hearings. They’re often impatient with House and Senate traditions, and are impatient with the democratic process.
I want to be clear that I’m not judging which kind of member is more valuable. I may prefer to spend my time with insiders, but both are needed to make the system work. You have to have members reaching out to the broader public, talking about the big issues and engaging Americans in the issues of the day. And you need people on the inside who are dedicated to resolving those issues by attending to the legislation that will make this possible.
The truth is, Congress wouldn’t work if everyone were an outside player. The process is tedious, and outsiders have little patience for it. Yet if everyone were an insider, the country would be deprived of the dialogue, debate, and sheer spectacle that give Americans a sense of stake and participation in the policy-making process.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.