Hamilton column: A legislator’s toughest job

"For a legislator who is truly trying to do her or his best for the country, the state, or the community, deciding how to vote requires hard work," writes Lee Hamilton.

Lee H. Hamilton
Lee H. Hamilton
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As Congress and many state legislatures get under way for the year, there are lots of new lawmakers out there starting to learn the ropes. It’s an exhilarating, exhausting time, and they’ll have plenty of questions about the challenges. But here’s one thing they might not even have imagined: The hardest part of their new jobs may be the most basic — casting a vote on legislation.

It seems odd, doesn’t it? And it actually took me a couple of decades in Congress before I realized it. I’d never reflected on the question until a constituent asked point-blank what I found most difficult about the role. I thought about the long hours, the time away from home, the criticism and pressure from pretty much every side (yes, even back then). Then I realized that it wasn’t the frustrations of the job that made it difficult, but its very core: deciding how to vote.

This isn’t always the case. Sometimes, voting on a bill can be straightforward: Maybe it’s a matter of no consequence, or it’s clearly what your constituents need. But you have to remember that legislators are asked to vote on a stunningly complex array of issues, some of which they’re familiar with, some of which they’re not, and many of which have real consequences for real people. Often, these are complicated issues, with aspects that extend far beyond the black-and-white views expressed in tweets and sound bites. So, for a legislator who is truly trying to do her or his best for the country, the state, or the community, deciding how to vote requires hard work.

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The first consideration is — or at least, should be — the views of the people a lawmaker serves. Members of Congress and state legislators get inundated with calls and emails from constituents and hear plenty of feedback on key issues at public meetings. From time to time, those sentiments all run in the same direction, but often they conflict, so a legislator has to work hard to find the majority’s sentiment.

Similarly, lawmakers rely on the reams of material produced by experts, think tanks, lobbyists, and even colleagues with particular expertise, but those can often conflict, as well. Making a decision involves sorting through a host of arguments — from legal and economic to practical and moral — and then making a judgment about which are most compelling. Because it’s a good bet that at some point, you’ll be called to account for how you voted.


Then, of course, there are the political considerations. These have become both simpler and more complex over the last few decades, as partisanship has grown. On the one hand, politicians these days are often expected just to fall in line with what the congressional or legislative leadership expects. But if the electoral politics of the last few years has made anything clear, it’s that voters do not follow party leadership dictates, and depending on the constituency, any politician interested in reelection needs to look beyond the loudest and most vociferous voices.

Finally, legislators do not arrive in office as blank slates waiting to be written on. They have their own experiences and convictions to draw from. At some point, everyone who holds office has to come to a decision on what he or she is willing to compromise on and what is beyond the pale — and, in the most dramatic instances, what is worth losing an election over.

You can see, then, why deciding how to vote is rarely the easy part of a lawmaker’s job. On some issues, you’ll vote your conscience. On others, you’ll follow the wishes of your constituents, or of the party leadership, or of colleagues you trust and respect. On others, you’ll become an expert as quickly as possible and then spend time parsing shades of gray. Yet on every vote, you’ll be expected to have an opinion and to be able to defend it, sometimes in the face of withering criticism. So, in the end you’ll cast your vote and then move on, because the next one is coming on fast.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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