How can you understand what’s going on in government? Whether you realize it or not, there are really at least two levels of interaction going on: What the public sees, hears, and reads about and what else is taking place just under the surface. How can the public understand the beneath-the-surface level? It is actually possible to understand if you look for certain clues. I speak from experience because I served on the Enumclaw City Council for four years. I came to see the two levels clearly.
The first clue to find out what is going on in local government is to come to council meetings on a regular basis, at least until you understand the personalities, perspectives and agendas of the various council members. Watching the program on television at home can give you some clues, but actually observing body and facial language and tone of voice can give you deeper understanding. Much of that can only be gained by actually being in the room.
All of us deal with families and friends. We know there are two levels of interaction with any group or organization. Hopefully, we have learned how to read people, their intent and attitudes by dealing with their quirks and idiosyncrasies over time. The same is true of government bodies and elected officials.
A second way to find clues is by attending committee meetings. Observing there can shed light on the personalities and egos of elected officials. Because they speak more, they also reveal themselves more. Government officials are also less guarded in committee meetings when few if any of the public attend.
It is also important to understand that most of the issues the council deals with are complex. The best solutions are not an easy yes or no. Different interest groups add other perspectives that must be weighed before coming to a conclusion. That’s why the council has seven members, and legislatures have 100 or more. Diversity forces deeper discussion of issues.
If you ask yourself the question, “What are elected officials’ goals for being in government—Is it to serve or to be served? “ Another related question you might ponder: “Are they there for the money— the salary, the power?” In addition, “Is this position a stepping-stone for higher office?”
Once you get beyond local government (less than $4,000/year), income and perks from serving on a county council or in state and federal government can rise to about $42,000 for the state legislature to $174,000/year for a rank-and-file member of Congress.
On the national and international levels, researching a topic and reading books is what I do to prepare to teach my continuing education classes. By reading two or three books on a subject like the 2008 Great Recession I quickly see differing viewpoints, but also common threads and conclusions. The information is there if you search for it. Just remember to hold the information tentatively to see if other authors disagree.
Asking questions of reporters who write legislative or Congressional columns is an excellent way to get an idea of what’s going on. Their business is to report the news and to do this effectively they need to know the back-story; They will often tell you if you write them, or better yet, ask them personally if you can.
Asking former elected officials is also an excellent way to find out what is going on. That’s why I’m writing this column and subsequent articles for The Courier-Herald.