If you’ve spent any time following politics, you’ve likely heard candidates giving their stump speech use the phrase, “Run it like a business.” It’s a common refrain aimed at solving dysfunction, whether in Congress, the Executive Branch, or government bureaucracy.
Having worked in Congress, on the campaign trail, and for political nonprofits over the past decade, I do believe we can learn how to do our work well by looking at other areas of our culture, including business. But what we miss when we think of Congress as a business is that it is not a business. It is, in fact, a Congress. A representative body should function as a representative body.
Monologues to an Empty Room
When you take a tour of the U.S. Capitol, there’s a short video you can watch before you leave the visitor center and take the escalator up into the center of the free world. It’s a bit epic in tone, and there’s a point where the narrator declares, “Congress is where we find our common ground.” Except it isn’t—not really, or not often enough. Despite the founder’s intention of creating a place where everyone from Upstate South Carolina to downtown San Francisco can come to find common ground, to make this fifty-state experiment of representative government work, instead we come with agendas that exclude other people from the outset. Instead of the House Floor being a place where we give and take ideals and ideas, reason together, and explore the nuances of policy, it’s often an empty chamber: if you’re lucky enough to get a staff-led tour, you can sit on the House Floor or touch the lecterns where Members regularly give speeches to no one.
The truth is, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and all the rest didn’t form a nation by delivering monologues to an empty room in Philadelphia. They didn’t go back to their home states thankful they said the right things to get sent back to Philly to do it all over again. And they weren’t obsessed with gaining power as much as they were focused on creating a nation.
But today, we run Congress like a business: offices focus on their long-term survival, and Members raise hundreds of thousands in capital to fund re-election. It’s true that the bottom line of campaigning is getting votes, but the bottom line of governing, similar to the nonprofit sector, is wisdom: governing well so humanity can flourish.
And if you’re a follower of Jesus and you work in politics, the great relief of the gospel is that we can view our work outside the categories of money, power, and the passing pressures of how an agenda fits in the current news cycle. We can turn our work into a work of art.
Congress As It Was Meant To Be
Congress is known for a near-constant approval rating of fifteen percent. And while the daily challenge is creating a place where representatives of 435 slices of America come together and vote on real world policies that affect millions of people, it could become a world-class institution despite the seeming inevitable gridlock.
I firmly believe that a Congress with an eighty percent approval rating is possible—but it would look totally different from what we see today. I think the day-to-day tasks would change to meet the challenge of governing well.
What would it look like if Congress became a world-class institution, and how do we end the gridlock? What would running Congress like a Congress look like in real life?
We have to begin by reassessing what we value. If followers of Jesus believe they are image-bearers of a great artist-creator, then they would live a bigger story than the failed us vs them dialogue that’s plaguing the major parties. If we truly believe in living in a democratic republic, how we govern and how we debate the issues should matter more to us than winning—or spinning—the debate at all costs to gain power. We would value honest, factual debate. We all want our voices to be heard, but do we still want everyone else’s voices to be heard, too? Or would we rather shut opposing views out of the conversation altogether? There are real incentives to shut them out: It’s easier to galvanize support when you cast the other side as a problem to be eliminated instead of partners in finding a solution, but doing so sacrifices detailed debate .
We would also elevate creativity in our work culture. And I believe that creative work, by nature of being creative, would be focused on achieving specific objectives, looking at our work with a long-term view, regardless of what headlines and talking heads are saying. Greater focus in work priorities in Congress would also help heal and elevate political rhetoric, encouraging Members of Congress and others to spend extended periods of time actually debating issues, with talking points backed up by factual research. We would finally be able to begin responding to each other’s specific points, rather than just talking past each other out of a worn playbook of canned, over-used zingers.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, we would care about the personal well-being of those doing the work to make Congress function as a great representative body. Burnout is a constant problem on Capitol Hill, and staffers are expendable because there’s no long-term objectives for which to retain them. However, prioritizing specific objectives would require empowering those working in Congress to do the work necessary to achieve the focused work and the factual debate. The culture of Capitol Hill would change from Member-as-celebrity, to Member-as-visionary, and therefore human beings would be valued as human beings, and not expendable young staffers who can be taken advantage of to further the careers and power quests of those they support.
These ideas are neither our ultimate savior, nor are they completely out of reach. Anyone working in American politics can run forward with the visionary mantra, “of, by, and for the people.” Members of Congress and their staffs can begin to change the usual political narrative, offering the country a view of governance that’s better than they would otherwise expect today. I believe a beautiful representative government is possible, both in our speech and in our day-to-day values and actions. We can indeed run Congress like a Congress.