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We the People

Sunday, March 1, 1998

A small but growing group of members of Congress serve
their constituents by encouraging private,
local solutions to community problems

U.S. Representative Rob Portman is widely known as a leader in the war against drugs. He has built this reputation not through legislation but through his work to mobilize an active anti-drug coalition in his Greater Cincinnati district.

At her Fort Worth town meetings, Representative Kay Granger hands out monthly "Star of Texas" awards to private citizens who are solving problems in their communities.

Senator Rick Santorum has developed an innovative approach to casework and constituent service. Each of his regional offices in Pennsylvania has a "community affairs" director to assist faith-based and other private nonprofit groups, not only by educating them about government funding sources, but also by encouraging them to seek private funding, which usually is available more quickly and with less regulation.

These and other members of Congress exemplify a new vision of congressional leadership. Giving new meaning to the term "citizen legislator," a small but growing group of senators and representatives seek to serve their constituents not simply by sponsoring legislation and writing budgets, but also by actively encouraging and helping private citizens and local governments to solve community problems without federal interference.

You can read about their work in a fascinating new report published by The Heritage Foundation, Congress and Civil Society: How Legislators Can Champion Civic Renewal in Their Districts. The report is written by April Lassiter, a former press secretary and domestic policy adviser for House Majority Whip Tom DeLay and a Bradley Fellow at Heritage last year. Lassiter tells story after story of "citizen legislators" who are departing from the pork-barrel tradition of addressing constituents’ concerns by earmarking federal dollars for their districts. These members of Congress are instead using their prominence and leadership skills to give a boost to local and private solutions.

For example, many private social-service agencies in Representative Joe Pitts’s central Pennsylvania district were afraid they would be financially overwhelmed by new responsibilities resulting from the welfare reform of 1996. Pitts’s response was not to repeal welfare reform, or to arrange special subsidies for complaining groups, but to convene a "Hope Summit" that taught fundraising and marketing techniques to 200 faith-based and other private neighborhood organizations that fight poverty in his district.

The office of Missouri congressman Jim Talent regularly refers constituents seeking help to private-sector groups in his district. Last year, a citizen with six adopted children contacted the district office in need of food and clothing. His staff referred her to a church and the local 4-H club, which provided food and subsequently "adopted" the family.

All too many members of Congress are seeking federal solutions for the crises in inner-city and other troubled public-school districts. By contrast, Representative Pete Hoekstra of Michigan argues that private initiatives and local reforms, rather than new federal programs, are the key to improving education. To publicize successful local efforts that deserve replication, he has held hearings on "Education at a Crossroads" in towns throughout America.

Perhaps the most fervent articulator of this new vision for congressional representation is House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich believes that members of Congress perform three principal roles in addition to their traditional duties as legislators and budget allocators: visionary, agenda setter, and articulator of community values; symbol of community power and standing; and recruiter of talent and energy for private activities. For years, he has set aside 15 percent of his schedule in his home district for charitable causes such as diabetes, breast cancer research, Habitat for Humanity, anti-drug efforts, and literacy. Whenever he visits other members’ districts, he always tries to schedule a joint appearance at fundraisers for local community groups.

Gingrich’s vision of the congressman as civic mobilizer grows out of the work of civil-society theorists such as Robert L. Woodson Sr., the president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise; Don Eberly, the director of the Civil Society Project; and Marvin Olasky, the editor of World magazine and author of The Tragedy of American Compassion. The opportunities for leadership were eloquently defined by Michael Joyce, the president of the Bradley Foundation, at a Heritage Foundation conference for freshmen members of the 104th Congress in January 1996:

"Within every one of your congressional districts, there are individuals who have thrown themselves into the business of civic revitalization, although they might not call it that. Perhaps one day they simply looked around themselves at the decay, the crime, the moral collapse, and said: ‘Enough.’ Enough of the social pathology. Enough of government programs full of promise and short of performance. Enough of passively waiting for an alleged expert to do something. And so they themselves stepped forward to do something.

"What you must do now is to go back to your districts and track these folks down. Take the time to become acquainted with them. Learn their stories. Learn to tell their stories. Talk about them incessantly to your constituents—just as much as you talk about budgets or congressional bills. For these people represent concretely and specifically what you mean when you champion civil society’s ability to tackle human needs more effectively than federal programs.

"Furthermore, you should ask your own supporters back home to become supporters of these folks as well, through their volunteer energies and tax-deductible contributions. In fact, your home office could become a sort of civic switchboard to link up charitable energies and resources with the most worthwhile grass-roots efforts.

"And always—always—name the names of these folks who are doing such important work. They deserve that honor, an honor denied them by the welfare establishment."

Lassiter’s report explores how members of Congress are seeking to work with the civic heroes in their districts. Some of this work is legislative: for example, identifying and repealing regulations, such as Clinton Labor Department rules under the Fair Labor Standards Act, that undermine volunteerism and civic work. But mostly Lassiter describes nonlegislative ways by which senators and representatives of both parties are assisting private initiatives: raising their visibility, helping with their fund-raising, promoting private-sector problem-solving in their districts, and building national coalitions for civic renewal.

Senator Sam Brownback, for instance, recently took a two-day fact-finding tour of private civic groups in Wichita and Topeka, Kansas. He learned of the amazing work of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Wichita, which has matched 800 children from troubled families with mentors who guide them through life. He learned how the Topeka Rescue Mission transforms the lives of homeless addicts through Christian conversion, and why it refuses to take government money. He learned how Kansas doubled, in one year, the number of children adopted out of foster care when it turned adoption services over to private agencies such as Kansas Families for Kids and Lutheran Social Services. And his visits to Topeka’s Marian Clinic and Wichita’s Good Samaritan Clinic, remarkable faith-based medical clinics for the working poor, reinforced his conviction that religious faith has been the driving force of community renewal throughout American history.

"The many effective neighborhood charities are America’s great untold success story," says Brownback. "Visiting them allowed me to witness a series of miracles in the making, as dedicated volunteers helped those who were lost, despairing, and dependent find new life and new hope. One of the most important reasons that government must be reduced is to give these tiny, amazingly effective organizations room to grow."