clock menu more-arrow no yes

What members of Congress can’t admit: it’s a pretty crummy job

NASA/Getty Images

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza has a smart, humane riff on the seven Republicans candidates who didn't make the cut for Fox News's main debate, and are condemned to the "Happy Hour debate" instead:

The truth of the matter is that politics — especially when viewed up close — is deeply humbling and, yes, often miserable. Most candidates will never admit it — voters like to think you are loving every minute of this tremendous privilege of running for office!!! — but running for office is brutally difficult, especially when you are just not getting the results you want.

So, too, is serving in office. Being a member, in particular, of the House of Representatives is a largely miserable experience. You are one of 435 lawmakers. You run for reelection every two years, and spend virtually the entire time between races begging rich people for money. You have a position that sounds incredibly important but is, most of the time, pretty powerless. You virtually always vote with your party because the consequences of heterodoxy are too great, the media mostly ignores your press releases, and your floor speeches are confined to a minute or two.

If you're in the minority, virtually nothing you do or say on the floor of the House matters at all. If you're a sober-minded member of the body, you have to watch the bomb-throwing radicals around you soak up attention from both the press and the congressional leadership even as they make the public hate you even more.

Your salary is fine — at about $174,000, it's certainly more than most Americans make — but it's probably less than you were making before you took office, and it's sure as hell a lot less than you could be making if you weren't in office. But don't you dare speak the obvious truth that you're relatively underpaid, even if the fact that lobbying firms can offer you multiples more is actually, in the end, costing the public a whole lot more than it would cost to give you a raise.

Meanwhile, unless you're a representative from Virginia or Maryland, you probably live far from your family, as bringing your family to Washington with you would let future opponents attack you for "losing touch." So you spend half the week at home with the people you love and half the week living in a group house with other members of Congress, or renting a tiny basement-level apartment, or sleeping — as many members of Congress brag about doing — on the floor of your office.

But whether you're at home or in Washington, your time is taken up with terrible meetings. You occasionally see ordinary constituents, and that's a pleasure, but mostly it's local businesses, lobbyists, screeching partisan-pressure groups, and other players who had the pull to get on your schedule and are there to sell you on something that you probably don't care about. You have to give speeches at all kinds of inane trade organization conventions and attend an endless series of local ribbon cuttings and Elk's Club meetings. Maybe you got into this to think about policy, but you really don't have that many hours left in the day to sit around gabbing with economists and thinking up ways to reform the tax code.

Which isn't to say there aren't rewards. If you get a bill passed, or even an amendment passed, it can have a huge effect on something you care about. It's fun to have everyone call you "Congressman" and think of you as a big deal. As you accrue seniority and respect, your power grows, and your job improves. And who knows? Maybe you can eventually move up to being a senator, or a governor, or even president.

But while you're a member of the House of Representatives, particularly while you're in your first few terms, there's just a tremendous difference between the public prestige of your job and the private misery of carrying it out. But you absolutely, positively, can never, ever say that aloud.

This isn't, by the way, a mere plea for pity for members of Congress. After all, they chose their fate. But most people who look at the work of being a politician these days are repelled by the low quality of life, endless bickering, and constant fundraising. The result is that basically no one wants to run for office, and so the pool of talent feeding our political system is drying up.