McCain and Dingell: Inspiring a stronger Congress
© Greg Nash

In the past year, the United States Congress lost two giants – Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden nominates Cindy McCain as ambassador to UN food agency Meghan McCain defends 'maverick' Sinema from attacks over filibuster stance GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster MORE (R-Ariz.) and former Rep John DingellJohn DingellRep. Dingell hospitalized for surgery on perforated ulcer Races heat up for House leadership posts Democrats flubbed opportunity to capitalize on postal delays MORE (D-Mich.). Known by their nicknames, the “Maverick” and “The Dean,” they had almost a century of public service between them and a shared a unique ability to inspire their colleagues – from Dingell’s dedication to introducing a single-payer health care bill to McCain’s streak of finding ways to reach across the aisle.

Serving decades in Congress, both men believed in the power and sovereignty of the government’s most representative body. Dingell used his position atop the House Energy and Commerce Committee to expand its influence and drive change for constituents – as he regularly subpoenaed corporate executives to testify under oath. McCain built a storied career in the Senate through action on bold changes like campaign finance reform and through partnerships that could bridge divides.

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The two men brought humanity to the branch of government most closely connected to the American people. Their commitment to civility, cooperation, and collaboration in their legislative chambers demonstrate what it takes to create a high-performing, cohesive Congress that can help the country adapt to the challenges ahead, which is why the Congressional Management Foundation selected these legislators as the 2019 Lifetime Achievement Democracy Awards honorees.

But in an era when congressional disapproval hovers around 80 percent, it’s difficult for most Americans to see Congress as a place where elected officials are helping their constituents address local problems while working together to solve national challenges. Current senators, representatives, and delegates are following in McCain and Dingell’s footsteps through the dedication and service they bring to Washington.

For example, last year’s Democracy Awards winners demonstrated an exceptional commitment to transparency and innovation. Rep. Seth Moulton’s (D-Mass.) office shares on its website the average wait time a constituent can expect for a response to a policy question, provides detailed explanations of major votes, and held town halls in all 39 cities and towns in his district. And Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersHouse GOP to launch climate caucus New Alzheimer's drug sparks backlash over FDA, pricing FDA approves first new Alzheimer's drug in almost 20 years MORE’ (R-Wash.) office functions like a start-up – incorporating Trello, Twitter Q+A, MailChimp, and chalkboard/whiteboard walls into daily operations. Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s (D-Ariz.) team scrupulously tracks constituent services work by issue, agency, and money recovered, deploying a handbook with step-by-step instructions and intake forms targeted to specific needs.  

Among this year’s nominees, Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoPuerto Rico's former governor stages a comeback Pulse nightclub to become a national memorial 5 years after deadly mass shooting Fauci says school should be open 'full blast' five days a week in the fall MORE’s (D-Fla.) office hosts ‘shadow days’ where interns spend the day learning from and attending events with Rep. Soto. And Rep. Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyLobbying world Liz Cheney says McConnell, McCarthy are heads of GOP Female Republicans 'horrified' by male GOP lawmaker's description of Cheney: report MORE’s (R-Pa.) office celebrates ‘Weekly Wins,’ where Rep. Kelly reads a letter from a constituent who had a positive experience working with the office and credits the staffer who handled the case.

Despite intense gridlock and frequent dysfunction, Congress is still an institution “of the people, by the people, for the people.” In their final words to their colleagues and to the public, Rep. Dingell and Sen. McCain echoed that sentiment, focusing on the value of public service and the spirit of compromise.

On the day he passed away, Rep. Dingell cited the many legislative hurdles overcome during his time in Congress, “All of these challenges were addressed by Congress. Maybe not as fast as we wanted, or as perfectly as hoped. The work is certainly not finished. But we’ve made progress — and in every case, from the passage of Medicare through the passage of civil rights, we did it with the support of Democrats and Republicans who considered themselves first and foremost to be Americans.”

And in his return to Congress following his cancer diagnosis, Sen. McCain spoke of the many great legislators he had collaborated with throughout his career, “Our responsibilities are important, vitally important, to the continued success of our Republic. And our arcane rules and customs are deliberately intended to require broad cooperation to function well at all. The most revered members of this institution accepted the necessity of compromise in order to make incremental progress on solving America’s problems and to defend her from her adversaries.”

By shifting the spotlight from where Congress is falling short to where it’s exceeding expectations, a roadmap emerges for putting McCain’s and Dingell’s eloquent words into action. The Democracy Awards seek to both highlight model congressional offices that can effectively deliver high-quality constituent service, a positive workplace environment, and increased accountability while also serving as an incentive for change – a fitting tribute to the lives and legacies of the “Maverick” and “The Dean.”

Sinkaus is research and communications associate at Congressional Management Foundation.