If this week taught me anything, it’s that national politics is inherently disempowering. I felt that way during my brief time in DC in college, which is why I didn’t go back after graduation. Now I think I probably never will.
And once the national immigration reform effort is over, I don’t think I personally ever want to work on moving anything through Congress again. The bill released this week should have been disappointing: An arduous 13 year path to citizenship, with at minimum a decade in second-class status, paying taxes without any rights, with a trigger preventing anyone from becoming a citizen until billions of dollars of drones, fences, federal agents and electronic surveillance systems are sent to the border.
But I wasn’t really disappointed. It was mostly what I expected. (See above article on why nothing truly progressive can make it two steps past the starting line in Congress.) My reaction was basically “Sigh… It is what it is.”
I do politics because I believe my world is bursting at the seams with injustice and pain because of deep systemic imbalances of power. I do politics because it’s exhilarating to see the disempowered become empowered. Nothing sends a chill down my spine like that look of invincibility in someone’s eyes when they realize their potential to be an agent of change. But congressional politics is so completely disempowering for those who engage in it, that it defeats the purpose of my political involvement.
1. It takes forever.
The founding fathers did this on purpose. They were down with democracy, but afraid the poor people would vote to take all their shit and distribute it freely amongst the unbathed toothless masses. So they created checks and balances to make sure the will of the majority couldn’t happen too fast, if at all.
For example, every once in a while there’s a big high-profile gun massacre. Suddenly everyone realizes that gun violence kills people every day, and this briefly creates the political willpower to beat the gun lobby. The masses tweet about it, TV pundits rant about it, and politicians make somber speeches about rising above partisanship to address this national tragedy. But by the time legislation actually grinds its way through the sausage machine of Congress, media attention moves on to something else and the public loses the urgency to push. But lobbying interests like the NRA can hold out for the long fight.
And sometimes the fight is really long. I worked to pass a financial aid bill in college that student advocates fought over with banks for 15 years before it finally reached the president’s desk. I got the taste of victory. But how many students calling for reform for years before me left with the lesson that big banks always win and activism is useless?
2. It’s an inside game
Major pieces of legislation are complex. Bills are hundreds of pages long and nearly impossible for a non-lawyer to read. This is better than short, vague bills that are full of loopholes, oversimplify social issues, and ultimately have to be sorted out in lawsuits. But the consequence of complexity is that it shuts out regular people from the process.
Worse, it’s even inaccessible to many members of Congress. There are so many bills and amendments to constantly vote for. They just don’t have enough staff to follow and analyze all of it. So they rely on lobbyists. One of the secret weapons of lobbyists is that they usually know way more about the subject matter than the member of Congress and their staff does.
The big decisions don’t happen in the big floor vote when everyone is paying attention. They get made in bill markups when little amendments get added and key words get switched. Those are the kinds of decisions regular people can’t access. How is a farmworker supposed to track a subtle amendment in federal legislation that might exclude them from immigration reform or indefinitely delay their path to citizenship?
The strategy and tactics needed to win an inside game are bad for developing leaders. Strategy has to be coordinated nationally and relies on closed-door negotiations between power brokers. Grassroots community members can’t really be part of strategic discussions and instead wait for directions to be passed down by those coordinating the central effort in DC. They usually never meet the decision-makers or the opposition. The tactics needed are low-skill, low-engagement actions like call-in days that are bad for building organizations and their members. At the end, it’s easy for people involved to question whether their work really made a difference at all.
3. It’s all about money
I have a healthy mixture of respect and horror at anyone willing to run for Congress. It’s exhausting, miserable, and absurdly expensive. You spend most of your day kissing donors asses, all while working every waking second and hoping your sleep-deprived brain doesn’t say something stupid while under constant media scrutiny. The average winning candidate for Congress raised over $2,000 per day in 2012. It doesn’t end once you get elected. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recommends its sitting members spend 4 hours every day in “call time” (making fundraising calls).
I was once involved in a campaign where a student I trained lobbied a senior Democratic senator to support closing offshore tax havens and was explicitly told by her DC staff that the member couldn’t support the bill because some of her biggest corporate donors used those offshore tax havens. Brutal honesty. All governing bodies are swayed by powerful interests. But nothing compares to the U.S. Congress.
I used to think local politics was boring, tinkering at the margins, something weird old people with too much time on their hands did. Now I see the value of local politics as a place to develop authentic leadership among the disenfranchised, to directly confront power face to face, and to win victories that the community feels direct ownership over.