YOU RUN a company. One employee shows up for work every day, arriving early, staying late, in the office on weekends, immersed in the job. A second toddles in mid-day at the beginning of the week and bolts out the door as soon as possible on Thursday, “working” from home on Fridays. Odds are you’re happier with the first hire than the second.
Unless we’re talking about the US Congress, where, apparently, such dedication is a fault, not a virtue.
Ed Markey, congressman and candidate for US Senate, is under fire. Unlike many of his colleagues, he doesn’t fly into Washington on Monday and then zoom home when the normal session ends on Thursday. No. He stays in D.C. the entire week and most weekends. My God! He even owns a house there.
Good for Markey. Some in his district may resent the time he spends at work, but his constituents are likely the better for it.
Admittedly, it makes for one of those great, embarrassing, gotcha kinds of stories. Markey’s Bay State residence is a small house in Malden, the same one in which he grew up. News stories suggest he’s rarely there. Instead, he and his wife live just outside of Washington in a million-dollar home five times the value and triple the size of his Massachusetts digs. And you know what that means . . . . He’s gone D.C. He’s become Beltway bound. He’s lost touch with his roots. There’s a touch of envy too: Markey’s out hobnobbing with the grandees and political glitterati instead of spending dull evenings hanging out at some local bar.
The criticism rests in part on a belief that politicians can only understand the concerns of those they represent by living those same lives. If Markey isn’t worrying about his bills from National Grid, goes the thinking, how can he have empathy for those of us struggling to pay for our own utilities? But our lives are far too diverse for any one politician to know them through personal experience. Politicians without children probably aren’t buying much milk. Politicians from outside of Boston probably aren’t riding the MBTA. That doesn’t prevent them from grappling with the worries of young parents or urban commuters.
Instead, good politicians keep in touch with their constituents through a wide variety of means: traditional and new media, staff outreach, listening to individuals, organizations, and interest groups. Spending more time in one’s hometown may help a little, but I’m guessing not much — and it probably doesn’t tell a pol much about the lives of those several towns over.
Of course, it’s politically easier to stay in the district, spending as little time as possible in the much-reviled Capitol. Doing so protects politicians from the kind of charges now being leveled at Markey. But it comes at a great cost: effectiveness.
In some respects, the least difficult task for a politician is voting “aye” or “nay” on a particular motion or bill. If that were all members of Congress did, there would be no reason to send them to Washington. They could sit at home, pushing a button whenever a vote was required.
But politics is far more than that. Effective politicians build relationship with colleagues, both with those in one’s own party as well as from the opposition. They work collaboratively to craft legislation, creating coalitions and compromises. They get to know and understand the concerns of those from other parts of the country and from different political philosophies. Doing all of this means spending time — lots of it.
That’s what the late Senator Ted Kennedy did. Hyannis was more a vacation home for him than a real home, but the days he spent in D.C. helped make him one of the country’s most accomplished leaders. His ability to develop close connections even with those with whom he disagreed — such as Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who ultimately became one of his best friends — paid off handsomely for Massachusetts and the nation.
By many accounts, Markey has been able to build similar relationships. That doesn’t mean that he necessarily should be Massachusetts’ next senator. But the fact that he cares about doing his job well is hardly a knock against him.
This column originally appeared in The Boston Sunday Globe on February 24, 2013.