How to Fix Congress: What I Learned From Being on Capitol Hill

October, 2017

 

Former NEC intern Meredith Garrett speaks to Congressman Jared Huffman. Photo courtesy of Meredith Garrett.

Former NEC intern Meredith Garrett speaks to Congressman Jared Huffman. Photo courtesy of Meredith Garrett.

I was born and raised in Southern California. I moved to Humboldt more than four years ago to pursue a degree in environmental policy at Humboldt State University, where I will be graduating this fall. A few years ago, I was able to intern at the Northcoast Environmental Center doing legislative analysis. For years now, I have had big dreams of working on environmental policy in the hopes of making communities across the nation safer and more enjoyable places.

This summer, I had the honor of interning on Capitol Hill through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. I got a glance at the policy-making process from inside a congressional office, shadowing a staffer on environmental policy—something that very few people will ever get to do during their lifetime. I arrived in D.C. hoping to line up a job for myself on the Hill. However, after working there for a short two months, I realized that D.C. was not actually where I wanted to work.

Like many folks, I often find myself frustrated with Congress. It either feels like they’re not getting anything done or they’re moving in the wrong direction. Congress was created to be the branch of government that most directly represents the people. However, polls show that Congress’s disapproval ratings average at about 72 percent. I thought a lot about this as I worked on the Hill and I now see this issue in a different light.

My experience in D.C. confirmed that Congress is broken in many ways. Two of the primary issues in Congress are that corporate interests are often prioritized over public interests, and that the current political arena is more polarized than ever.

Members of Congress are only soundboards for their constituents. If Members of Congress are meant to be a reflection of what their constituents want, then maybe the problem is that we, their constituents, aren’t as well-informed, politically engaged, and civil as we ought to be.

If you believe that Congress is prioritizing corporate interests over the public interest, the best remedy is to take action yourself. Make your voice heard if you don’t want a representative that takes money from corporations. The Congresswoman  I worked for this summer  was proud to say to her constituents that she doesn’t take money from big oil; her constituents applaud her for this. Political candidates will only turn down corporate money if they know that this is what their constituents want. Find a way to make your voice heard.

The only thing more powerful than money is the power of people in numbers. Use that power in whatever way you can. Vote thoughtfully. Call your representatives. Attend town hall meetings. Join rallies and protests. Join an interest group. Donate to causes that you believe in. Be a thoughtful consumer. Submit an op-ed to your local newspaper. And most importantly, encourage others to be engaged as well. The only way we can dilute the influence of corporate interests is if we all do our part, whatever that part may be. Together we can be louder than money.

Another clear issue in Congress is that the parties are incredibly polarized. I saw a lot of this during my time on the Hill. Instead of engaging in a productive, bipartisan manner, many times Members of Congress said what they wanted to say in meetings and hardly lent an ear to their colleagues on the other side of the aisle. In briefings on climate change and energy, for example, members of both parties were quick to demonize the other side with snide comments. This behavior is also a reflection of us, their constituents.

These days, praise is given to politicians who stand firm and speak combatively, unwilling to compromise,  instead of to politicians who are interested in coming up with solutions that work best for everyone. To fix this polarization, we need to vote for individuals who are capable of being cooperative and understanding while also sticking to their values. No matter where you stand, you cannot expect those on the other side of the aisle to understand your concerns if you are not willing to try to understand theirs.

After all of these reflections, my props go to those who are being active citizens: the people who take the time to really learn both sides of current political issues. The people who call their representatives and attend town hall meetings. The NGOs that are educating and mobilizing the public. The private businesses that are choosing to take social and environmental responsibility. This is where progress is really being made—right here in our own communities, not on some hill on the other side of the country.

Our democracy is a beautiful thing, but it is only effective as long as its citizens are civil, engaged, and well-informed. This is why I decided to work here in my home state. This is where action is most needed. Nothing is going to get better in Congress if we, the people, don’t use our power to change it.