I make two trips to Washington, D.C. every year to discuss MEP and manufacturing issues with the Wisconsin Congressional delegation. I’m just back from our Spring trip and once again was reminded how surreal the situation can be and how much hard work it is to see everyone in two days.
We usually travel with two or three manufacturers and it’s always fun to introduce “newbies” to the process. Their initial reaction to the environment and their personal development during the visits are fun to watch. Each of their stories becomes more refined as they speak to Congresspeople from across Wisconsin. At the end of the visits, I make it a point to ask what they found most exciting and what surprised them the most.
The reactions usually fall into one of two categories: Either the entire process impresses and amazes them or they become disillusioned by the way we run government. I can see both perspectives. I usually come home with a feeling of pride that we live in a country where each of us can petition the government and be heard. At the same time, the inertia and inability of smart people to post major accomplishments frustrates me.
In any case, it’s a valuable experience – whoever you are and whenever you go. Seeing the process up-close provides a unique perspective on what makes our republic work. Seeing the flow of citizens and their causes filling offices and hallways also inspires a sense of confidence in the system and our ability to make an impact. Finally, taking a stand and educating the delegation provides an appreciation for our democracy and what’s possible.
Everyone should go through the process at least once. There’s no more intense way to learn your civics than in the halls of Congress. If you go during the budget cycle, you will encounter thousands of people making their cases and representing their causes. You will be amazed at the complexity of the ecosystem and how it all fits together.
Engagement around that complexity makes learning essential. In order to make a strong case, you must know your issues cold. Really smart people fill Congressional staffs and they expect crisp, informed arguments and direct answers to their questions. You must also learn the legislative process and how Congress gets things done in order to take the right actions at the right time. The issues and the process taken together create a unique opportunity to learn how our country operates.
Most people come away with a better perspective on the public sector. Washington is always a place with multiple issues in play. Decisions tend to be much more complicated than in the private sector because those decisions can rarely be reduced to dollars and cents. As a result, competing priorities – almost all important and reasonable – line up for limited resources. Simple solutions usually don’t work in this environment. Effective action requires hard work, deep understanding of the relevant issues, and an appreciation for the interaction of the various forces at work.
Our future depends on informed, smart people engaging in effective ways. These leaders must be able to handle nuance in complicated environments and engage in civil discussions around emotionally-charged topics. This leadership includes taking principled, inclusive positions to build the future by aligning people around meaningful and productive causes.
I encourage you to make a difference in your world. Find a cause – something you believe in and are willing to master. Schedule a trip to Washington and make your case to our delegation. Then bring what you learn back to your community, teach others about what you learned, your cause, and the process you engaged.
We can make a difference by acting together and engaging the system.