May 7, 1998

May 7, 1998 | Commentary on Smart Growth

How Congress Can Champion Civic Renewal

Members of Congress would be wise to join a growing group of their colleagues who are serving constituents in ways besides sponsoring bills and appropriating money. These congressional leaders are helping local people solve community problems without adding a cent to the federal debt or a word to the federal code.

For examples of this new model of constituent service, members can browse April Lassiter's just-out booklet, "Congress and Civil Society: How Legislators Can Champion Civic Renewal in Their Districts," published by The Heritage Foundation. In its pages they can find stories (from both sides of the aisle) of lawmakers who use their prestige and leadership ability to help others do good. A few examples:

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., hired a community affairs director in each of his district offices to assist private non-profit groups, not only by educating them about how to secure federal grants, but also by steering them toward private funding - which usually can be obtained more quickly and with fewer strings attached.

Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, founded the Congressional Hunger Center, which mobilizes local charities and groceries to feed the poor and recognizes anti-hunger agencies in American communities at an annual ceremony. Nearly 50 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, take part in the center's Victory Against Hunger Awards.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., joined with four GOP congressmen from the Golden State - Ron Packard, Randy Cunningham, Brian Bilbray and Duncan Hunter - in a letter-writing campaign to raise money for struggling Boy Scout troops in the San Diego area.

On it goes. Lassiter tells story after story of members who have found a new role - as civic mobilizer. Increasingly, lawmakers are breaking from the pork-barrel tradition of addressing constituent concerns by earmarking federal dollars for their districts.

For example, many private social-service agencies in the district of Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., feared they would be financially swamped by new responsibilities gushing from the welfare reform of 1996. Pitts responded by convening a central Pennsylvania "Hope Summit." There, 200 faith-based and other private neighborhood organizations learned fund-raising and marketing techniques to continue fighting poverty in Pitts' district.

Perhaps the leading voice of this new vision of congressional representation is House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. Besides lawmaker, he says, each member of Congress performs three roles: articulator of community values, symbol of community power, and recruiter of talent for private activities. In keeping with this philosophy, the speaker devotes 15 percent of his home-district schedule to support charitable causes such as diabetes and breast-cancer research, anti-drug efforts and literacy.

Addressing a 1996 Heritage Foundation conference for freshmen members of the 104th Congress, Bradley Foundation President Michael Joyce summarized opportunities for non-traditional congressional leadership.

"Within every one of your districts," Joyce said, "there are individuals who have thrown themselves into the business of civic revitalization, although they might not call it that. Perhaps one day they simply looked around at the decay, the crime, the moral collapse, and said: Enough. Enough of government programs full of promise and short of performance. Enough of passively waiting for an alleged expert to do something. And so they themselves stepped forward to do something.

"What you must do now is go back to your districts and track these folks down. Learn their stories. Talk about them incessantly to your constituents, just as much as you talk about budgets or bills. And always, always name the names of these folks. They deserve that honor, an honor denied them by the welfare establishment."

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., recently took Joyce's advice. Brownback set aside two days for a fact-finding tour of private civic groups in his state. He learned of the amazing work of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Wichita, which has matched 800 children from troubled families with caring adult mentors. He learned how the Topeka Rescue Mission transforms the lives of homeless addicts through Christian conversion, and why it refuses to take government money. And visits to Topeka's Marian Clinic and Wichita's Good Samaritan Clinic - faith-based medical clinics for the working poor - reinforced his conviction that religious belief has fueled community renewal through American history.

Most members who have accepted the duty of citizen legislator talk about another sort of renewal - a personal rejuvenation not found in the committees and cloakrooms of official Washington; a joy that derives from giving close support to the front-line soldiers in the war for America's future. It's a feeling apt to outlast the results of the next election.

About the Author

Originally appeared in The Hill