What is the motivation that drives political lawmakers? Is Congress a representative sampling of
’s very best? Or are other human factors at play? America
Some believe that how much we think we know, measured up against how little in reality we actually do know, is the difference between book smart vs. experience smart. It’s knowing that the lessons learned as a kid on the playground in grade school may be more relevant and important than the high-minded intellectual concepts studied later in professional school. It’s also the difference between knowing when to talk, and knowing when to shut up and listen. Others say it’s the difference between amassing knowledge and gaining wisdom.
At some point, the brain logically shifts from consideration of “what is the law” to “why is it the law.” How many times do we find ourselves uttering the familiar words, “If I only knew then what I know now.” There is always more to learn.
More and more these days, whether it’s about politics, religion or even the local Little League program, I find myself questioning the motives of the leaders involved. What do they have to gain, or lose, should a particular policy which is being put forth prevail? Or whether the institution permits discussion of any changes to its arranged order? When we’re dealing with human nature, doesn’t it seem that self-interest is typically the proponent’s top priority? Even (and especially!) if it does not appear to be presented that way? And is the delivery of the proposal true and unbiased, as Jeffersonian simplicity would demand, or are the familiar forces of physical and psychological manipulation hard at work?
Membership in the US Congress provides an illuminating example. When I was in grade school, I believed that the 535 individuals who comprise the legislative body charged with the unenviable task of lawmaking (435 from the House of Representatives and 100 from the Senate) were idealists. They maintained character and integrity first and foremost and stood on a higher intellectual plane. These lawmakers subordinated their own self-interests, bestowing favor instead upon policies for the benefit of the masses of ordinary citizens. After all, this was the oath they had taken to public service. They were distinguished citizens, people we looked up to with great respect and admiration for all that they had accomplished and stood for. And as for those in the Senate, the more reserved, deliberative body, all the more so.
I continued to believe in this line of thinking for many years, until learning Abraham Lincoln’s views. Many ordinary citizens are unaware that
was a member of the House of Representatives in 1846, where he served a brief,
two year term, some 15 years before he was elected president. I was much pleased to learn that Lincoln shared at the
outset the same speculations and musings about the character and motivations of
the men who filled the seats of Congress, and who he was about to meet,
encounter and interact with.
But when he had occupied his own seat, then-Congressman
quickly changed. He became extremely disappointed, finding members by and large to be “men of mediocre
ability and only local reputation.”  This was a huge letdown for Lincoln, the thought striking me also with a
dull thud. Further pondering, however,
provoked another sobering question: If that was the makeup of Congress then, could it possibly be any different
now, with the threat of another
federal government shutdown looming on the near horizon? Being somewhat familiar
with the players, I was pretty confident of the answer.
 Of course, Congress consisted only of men at the time.
mentioned one great exception in John Quincy Adams, the former president, who was one of only two former Presidents to do so (Andrew Johnson later served in the US Senate in the post-Civil War era). According to , JQA was
“distinguished alike for his rocklike integrity and his implacable hatred of
slavery.” He was elected to
the House of Representatives, serving Lincoln for eight consecutive terms
from 1831 until his death in 1848. Massachusetts