In defense of public service: Washington is so much more than a swamp
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When House Majority Whip Steven Scalise (R-La.) returned to the House Chamber almost four months after being shot simply because he belongs to the Republican Party, his colleagues from both sides of the aisle rose to cheer his homecoming. That, right there, was the Congressional Family coming together, putting the commonality of public service above party labels. The day before his return, my organization of more than 600 former senators and representatives from both parties held a memorial service in Statuary Hall to commemorate more than 30 public servants who had passed away during the previous 18 months. The event brought together current and former members of Congress, as well as the families of those we were recognizing. Again, no party labels, but simply the unifying experience of having served the country in the greatest representative body in history.

Public service is at the heart of our nation’s greatness, and when given the opportunity, our elected officials are eager to embrace what unites them: serving the country. We just don’t give them the opportunity very often anymore. While beating up on Washington, on members of Congress, and on the public servants who make up the federal workforce clearly yields attention-grabbing soundbites and votes based on demagoguery, it also poisons the well. How many Boy Scouts do you think were inspired to pursue public service after hearing their president describe the nation’s capital as a “cesspool” and “sewer?”


Instead of celebrating public service and the men and women who come to Washington in search of ways to improve our nation, we are giving the next generation every reason imaginable to stay as far away from their representative government as possible. We’ve seen the direct result of this: our association has a robust exchange program that brings college students across the nation together with bipartisan teams of former members of Congress to learn more about what it’s like to work in Congress. More and more in recent years we hear the question: “Why would I want to be part of this?” 

They should want to be a part of this, and here’s why: every single challenge our nation faces can be met and overcome when smart women and men put solutions above dogma. Almost all former members of Congress I have met call their time in the House or the Senate the most meaningful and rewarding experience of their professional lives. Each major leap forward that our nation has taken since the very first Congress was conceived was implemented and regulated by public servants: creating our government from scratch following the American Revolution, adding the Bill of Rights to our Constitution, doubling the size of our country through the Louisiana Purchase, creating the League of Nations after World War I, The Marshall Plan after World War II, the GI Bill, the Civil Rights Act, sending a man to the moon, and winning the Cold War. All were accomplished because of the hard work of public servants.

There exists a myth that our Founding Fathers were professional farmers who happened to be politicians on the side. They were not: they were professional public servants. James Madison did not milk a cow and plow his field day after day, taking short breaks from farming to draft and promote the Constitution – he spent his time serving in legislative bodies at both the state and the federal levels, built relationships with other politicians from other parts of the country and other political persuasions, and then used that knowledge and experience to hand us a government that still is the embodiment of freedom and liberty, over 200 years later. 

The memorial service my association hosted rightly recognized the public service of 31 men and (only!) one woman. These politicians gave our nation a combed 609 years of public service at the local, state and federal levels. Before becoming politicians, many of them served our country in uniform, earning a combined 13 medals in World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom. They came to Washington to move the country forward and to hand to the next generation a better America. They were united in their belief that public service is the highest calling, and they, as well as those who currently serve us, deserve better than being disparaged for their commitment.

They represented the fact that, contrary to what’s too-often said, public service is indeed a noble calling. For the sake of the nation I hope the next generation’s best and brightest can still be persuaded that Washington is so much more than a swamp.

Weichlein, CEO, Former Members of Congress Association