Refocusing our politics on the issues that matter
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Every freshman member of Congress packs their bags for Washington already envisioning the more perfect republic they seek to build. They all know it may take time, hard work, and compromise, but nothing good ever comes easy.

But the Washington that waits for them is different. Where freshman members expect to enter storied halls for deliberation, reason, and thought, they find a nonstop call center. Dialing for dollars, either for re-election or to help the party, starts early and eats up dozens of hours every week, and representatives who would rather focus on working with their colleagues to address the issues that brought them to the capital in the first place are in for a rough time. Lawmakers who don’t pick up the phone find themselves skipped over for key committee appointments or last in line for party support when the next election rolls around. 

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This happens almost every day, on both sides of the aisle. It’s easy to imagine how this obsession distorts our politics. Leadership and public service – two of the values that put our democracy at the forefront – have been pushed aside. Our representative democracy itself might well be next.

When lawmakers have to raise money to stay above water and face unrelenting special interest pressure, it should come as little surprise that there’s not much time left for the unglamorous business of governing. What starts in Congress doesn’t stay there, for better or worse. The gridlock in the House and Senate holds up conversations about the things that matter to all Americans: safety, health and happiness for their families.

I left Congress in 2011, but things became dire enough following the 2016 election that I began talking with Issue One about becoming co-chair of their ReFormers Caucus, the largest group of former elected officials, from governors to Cabinet secretaries to members of Congress, ever assembled to work on behalf of political reform. I served alongside former fellow Reps. and Ambassadors Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) and Connie Morella (R-Md.). Issue One is nonpartisan, because this isn’t a problem one party created, nor is it something one party can fix.

Thankfully, Americans from across the political spectrum have taken notice. In February, I’ll be joining hundreds of them in New Orleans at the Unrig the System summit to discuss what draws us together – the fundamental belief in our democracy and what we can do to refocus our politics on the issues that matter. In the face of such cultural division, it’s easy to lose sight of how much unites us.

We cannot allow ourselves to turn a blind eye to bad behavior, and this convening will provide us with a forum to discuss real solutions. There will be workshops, presentations, and trainings centered on the changes we need to create a better future. And we need to focus on the future – hyper partisanship and insularity clearly aren’t going to help us. Solid policy and effective advocacy are two of the principles that drew me to Issue One, and they’ll be key elements of the Unrig agenda.

I’ll be joined there by Republican Rep. Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherBipartisan lawmakers unveil bill to tighten some campaign rules Do you want to drain the swamp? Then start investing in Congress GOP lawmaker calls for committees to elect their own chairmen MORE of Wisconsin, who recently helped launch the Congressional Reformers Caucus, which was inspired by work of Issue One's ReFormers Caucus. There are few people better equipped to speak about the special interest dominance, fundraising fixation, and ethics problems that grip Washington than the current elected officials who are more interested in getting things done than growing party power.

I look forward to talking to Rep. Gallagher and people from around the country at Unrig about the small and large steps we can take to get our democracy back on track.

I have plenty to share about the Washington I saw change during the 16 years I was fortunate enough to serve the people of Tennessee’s 3rd District. The people around me will have their own experiences to relate and their own lessons to impart. We’ll discuss what works, what doesn’t and what’s essential to restoring our unique system of self-governance.

The promise of American democracy is that we can talk freely about the issues and values that matter to us. That’s what the freshman representative is thinking about on the first flight to Washington. I look forward to living that promise at Unrig the System, and each day after that as we push for the nation we love and need.

Wamp served in Congress from 1995-2011.