Thursday, April 29, 2010

Whatever Their Tone, We Need Town Hall Meetings

The strident rhetoric and heated tone of recent congressional town-hall meetings has some people wondering whether they're getting out of hand. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton says this is nothing new, and that "Whatever Their Tone, We Need Town Hall Meetings."

Years ago, when I was still in Congress, I pulled up one day to address a public meeting in a remote and very rural part of Indiana. The sheriff, a friend of mine, met me outside the small volunteer fire house where I was to speak. "The Ku Klux Klan is here in full regalia," he told me. "If you'd like, I'll keep them out of your meeting."

For just a second, I'll confess, I weighed his offer. But I was not in the business of trying to keep constituents out of public gatherings — even if they were in the KKK. No, I told my friend, the Klansmen could come in, as long as they removed their hoods. There's no place for anonymity in a public meeting, I said.

And so about twenty-five of them — hoodless — marched down the aisle made by the rickety folding chairs set up in the tiny firehouse and took their places in the front. Was this or was this not a Christian nation, they demanded. And what did I think about Jewish influence in Hollywood and on the media? I responded calmly, but their persistent overtones of anti-Semitism wore out the audience's patience. Eventually they left, and the meeting continued.

I've been thinking recently about that long-ago event as the temperature of congressional town meetings heats up. Media coverage of stormy public gatherings may give the impression that we've entered an especially fraught time for public discourse, but I can tell you that anyone who's been in public life for a while has seen plenty of fierce town-hall meetings. The challenge is not to avoid controversy; it's to make it productive. Here are some things I've learned over the years about how to do that:

First, you have to recognize that public meetings are crucial for members of Congress and other elected officials. They're where they can best gauge the intensity of public feeling, hear from ordinary citizens, and give people a chance to get to know firsthand their representative. Sometimes you have to square your shoulders before you head into a room where you know tempers are going to flare, but this is democracy at the retail level, and it's vital.

Often, raw emotions surface — a particular policy can affect people deeply, and they ought to hold strong views about it. The first rule if you're the official presiding over the meeting is to be unfailingly polite and let everyone speak—don't cut anyone off. The crowd will always start out sympathizing with friends and neighbors, even vociferous ones, but I've noticed that angry or long-winded speakers inevitably wear out their welcome, as the Klan members in Indiana did. In the end, most people come to meetings like these to listen and discuss, not hear someone else harangue them.

In some ways, the bigger challenge that a member of Congress faces is to draw out the people who don't speak easily, but who often have insightful things to say. Every meeting will have speakers seeking the limelight; the trick is to create a space where the more hesitant can feel comfortable saying what's on their minds, too.

Sometimes, it's hard to understand a question or comment; people don't always express themselves clearly. But it's important to try hard, and not simply brush someone off because he or she is inarticulate. Because when you do finally understand, you'll often be impressed by the common sense and pragmatism that often underlie people's concerns, no matter how angry or tongue-tied they appear to be.

Finally, meetings like these are a chance not only to educate the public, but also to be educated by it. Once, at an especially lively meeting over the Panama Canal treaties in the 1970s, I found myself — a supporter of the treaties — overwhelmed by the opposition in the room and not quite sure I would emerge from the meeting in one piece. A constituent I'd never met stood up and gave the most cogent argument for ratification I'd ever heard. Not only did the room quiet down, but I took those debating points back to Washington with me, duly reminded that there is great wisdom even in the most obscure corners of our country.

Over my years in Congress, I conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of town-hall meetings. Almost every time I came away with the feeling that this was precisely what I was meant to be doing — engaging with my constituents in a small part of the dialogue of democracy. Just as often, these meetings reinforced my confidence in the fairness, decency and judgment of the American people.

So as we look ahead to the next congressional recess, and no doubt to the next round of heated town-hall meetings, let's remember that they, too, help ensure that our representative democracy remains vibrant.

Audio Version

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

It's Time to Govern the Flow of Political Money

The amount of money flowing through the system for congressional campaigns and lobbying has grown so enormous that it threatens Congress' ability to do its job right. This is why, says former Congressman Lee Hamilton, "It's Time To Govern The Flow Of Political Money."

There was a time when I believed that the best way to curtail the impact of money flowing into our political system was to monitor it. Make sure that campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures were reported quickly and accurately, I reasoned, and journalists and the American public could determine for themselves what they could tolerate.

Transparency is still needed. But the entire political system is now so swamped with cash — and lawmakers so overwhelmed by the need to raise it — that something more is clearly needed. Congress, the institution I know best, is in danger of drowning. It needs help. Americans dislike the idea of using taxpayer dollars to fund politicians' campaigns, but what Congress needs is pretty straightforward: It needs public financing of congressional campaigns.

The simple cost of running for office is ludicrous. I first ran for Congress 45 years ago, and spent $30,000 on that race. That was before the costs of television advertising, pollsters, consultants, web strategists, get-out-the-vote efforts and all the other mechanics of a modern campaign took off — it was even before most of them were considered essential. These days, the winners of House seats spend an average of $1.3 million on their campaigns (and that includes both competitive and noncompetitive races); on the Senate side, it's closer to $8 million.

Except for certain well-situated politicians, most of the people running for Congress are not raising this money at home. Instead, they're turning to wealthy donors in a few major metropolitan areas — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and, of course, Washington, D.C. In the last election cycle, in fact, contributions from those five cities, many of them aligned with one or another special interest jockeying for position on Capitol Hill, outweighed those from 36 states combined.

Although the rise of the Web as a fundraising tool has to some extent democratized political giving, that trend is still puny compared to the concentration of financial power in relatively few hands. In 2008, a few industry sectors — finance and real estate, lawyers and lobbyists, healthcare, communications, and energy and transportation — combined to provide $1.2 billion to federal candidates. Of all the funds raised by federal candidates, including candidates for president, less than 1 percent of Americans provided 80 percent of the money.

The effect of all this is apparent. Far too many Americans are now convinced that they count for very little in the political arena because their voices are drowned out at election time by heavy donors and in the legislative process by well-heeled special interests. In a poll conducted last year by the Center on Congress at Indiana University, over half the people surveyed believed that members of Congress pay closest attention to lobbyists; only 10 percent believed they listen to the folks back home.

This is understandable, especially if you look at giving patterns whenever Congress takes up legislation affecting a given industry. When a banking regulation bill starts moving on Capitol Hill, suddenly donations to key members of the banking committees skyrocket; when a health care bill is on the docket, the flow of money to key committee members is unstinting. These torrents of cash power widespread cynicism about our system.

The impact on Capitol Hill has been no more wholesome. Lawmakers are engulfed by the need to raise money, and by the political calculations they must inevitably make when weighing what big-time donors want. They spend many hours each week going to fundraisers or telephoning potential donors; given the need to raise some $15,000 every week for House seats (and more for the Senate), it's hardly surprising that they find themselves listening especially closely to those who can promise access to the financial spigot.

We often criticize Congress for its inefficiency, but its members certainly are efficient at vacuuming up contributions. Yet this fundraising treadmill makes it much more difficult for our elected representatives to do what we hired them to do: study and understand the complicated dilemmas facing our country, debate the policy alternatives, work with one another to forge common ground, and spend time listening to and speaking with their constituents. In other words, it has wrenched the political process completely off track. For both candidate and contributor, the money-hunting process is demeaning.

So it's time for us to consider some alternatives. In my view, this means moving toward the public funding of congressional campaigns, just as we do for presidential campaigns — perhaps requiring a mix of public and private funds.

When I propose this in public forums, I often feel lucky there aren't any pitchforks handy, because my irate listeners would certainly use them on me. But as a political scientist I know puts it: We already pay for congressional campaigns, we just label it "the national debt." Interests that donate to campaigns often get what they want from legislation, and we all pay for that; by comparison, public financing seems like a bargain. Until we get it, moneyed interests will command the playing field, and our political process — and our representative democracy — will be twisted beyond all sense.

Audio Version

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

You, Too, Should Care About What's Happening To Journalism

The troubles besetting journalism are of great concern to politicians and journalists who care about the media's role in a representative democracy. But former Congressman Lee Hamilton says that "You, Too, Should Care About What's Happening to Journalism."

A central aspect of the art of politics in Washington is getting information to the American people. Determining what the White House, Congress and the people will focus on — and, just as important, what the content of debate will be — preoccupies politicians at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and legions of lobbyists, pundits, strategists and consultants.

One major institution looms large in all these people's calculations: the national media. Not only has it historically played a vital role in informing the people and focusing their attention on issues that need addressing, but also it has a considerable impact on how we talk about them. What we read in the newspapers, hear on the radio, and see on television or online helps to shape how public policy gets discussed.

The crosscurrents of reasoned discourse and angry outbursts that have characterized much of the debate on health care reform are a perfect illustration of how coverage by the mainstream media, the exhortations of talk radio hosts, and extreme theories spread through the blogosphere all combine to influence the dialogue of democracy.

You can find the crucial role that an independent media plays in a democracy in any basic journalism text. Unlike partisan commentators and bloggers, its first obligation is to the truth: to provide the basic information that a self-governing people relies on to make discerning judgments. This means that journalists have a heavy responsibility to check the facts and be accurate, since their fundamental role is to foster understanding of issues, players and government, not to stoke contempt or praise for them.

The press helps make representative democracy work. If it does its job, it maintains a healthy skepticism of those in power — and of those who seek to defeat them at the ballot box. It should perform vital oversight not only of government, but also of the special interests that seek to influence it. It should provide a forum for public dialogue. It should report comprehensively on issues in a manner that does not reduce them to simple sound bites. And it should strive to help readers, listeners and viewers understand what is significant and what is not.

Without a robust, independent and professionally competent media helping Americans understand our government and politics, and giving them the tools to make good judgments about them, our democracy will fail.

This historic role of the press is under siege today. In part, of course, it's being undermined by the sorry financial state that many newspapers and mainstream news programs find themselves in. But it is also being compromised by the blurring that has taken place in recent years between news and opinion, and. more destructively, between news and entertainment.

The media today is more anxious to comment on the news than it is to cover and report it. Hard news and reasoned analysis are foundering as the numbers of reporters shrink, Washington bureaus are slashed or abandoned altogether, and the space devoted to the basic informative aspects of journalism gives way to reporting about politics, polls, personalities and conflicts, rather than the substance of issues.

And what has come to dominate the public's attention instead? Feisty advocates for a particular point of view, belligerent personalities, and wordsmiths promoted for their cleverness and temerity. Television is a particular culprit here. Many interviewers on television now deem it a virtue to offer an avalanche of opinions and a trickle of facts, to prod for angry shouting matches, to exacerbate differences, and to book guests based on their partisanship, not their knowledge.

It has reached the point where people attempting to be fair, reasoned and discriminating on many television shows either give up or find themselves in the awkward position of being marginalized. The political center may be alive and well among Americans on the ground, but it is very hard to find on the air — when, for instance, was the last time you saw a program on abortion that wasn't all about the clash of pro-life and pro-choice advocates, rather than the more subtle views held by many Americans?

Moreover, I am amazed at how much airtime is spent interviewing pundits about their opinions, both informed and ill-informed, and how little time is spent investigating the facts or breaking stories not already covered in the print media.

All of this, of course, concerns both responsible journalists and those they cover. The relationship between decision-makers and the journalists who report on them is symbiotic. Journalists need newsmakers, but they also rely on politicians with a deep understanding of a given issue to help them explain it to the broader public. Likewise, politicians and policy-makers rely on journalists to help build public understanding by reporting in depth on the substance of issues, not just the politics and the personalities.

A world filled with partisan blogs and hyper-bloviating commentators can work to a politician's advantage, giving him or her the ability to stoke public support by appealing only to the faithful. But the travails besetting journalism today are alarming to those of us who believe that democracy is not simply a matter of mobilizing the masses; it is instead about searching for common ground among competing interests on difficult issues and then painstakingly building support for compromise and reasoned solutions.

All who believe in representative democracy must understand that what's happening in journalism today has huge consequences for the quality and vitality of our republic.

Audio Version

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Members of Congress Need to Travel

The recent brouhaha over congressional plans to buy new military jets for official travel has brought a new round of public criticism of congressional "junkets." Former Congressman Lee Hamilton says, on the contrary: "Members of Congress Need to Travel."

Spooked by the public outcry, the House of Representatives has cancelled its order for four new military jet aircraft that would have been used occasionally to ferry members of Congress around the world. Even so, you shouldn't expect for a minute that the next time you fly, your seatmate in coach will be some duly humbled congressman on a fact-finding mission.

For the most part, when members of Congress head overseas on government business, their experience is a bit different from travel as most of us know it. To begin with, there's no need to worry about schedules or wait at the ticket counter or fret about missing a flight because you're stuck in a security line. If you're flying courtesy of the government, the Air Force will have a plane waiting whenever you're ready to go. Someone picks you up at your house or on Capitol Hill and takes you to Andrews Air Force Base, where they seat you in a very nicely appointed VIP lounge with plenty of refreshments. At some point along the way, they also take charge of your bags; the next time you'll see them will be in your hotel room. You carry on board only those papers and belongings you need in flight.

In the air, members of Congress fly with more room and amenities than first class on commercial flights, with plenty of legroom, excellent meals and attentive service. There's usually a doctor on the flight, offering tips for staying healthy on long jaunts. Quite often, spouses are included in the trip, "for protocol purposes," as the phrase goes. At your destination, you're met by an embassy official who not only has all the details you'll need on your itinerary, but also a wealth of information on restaurants, entertainment (tickets available upon request), museums, and sightseeing, along with information on the politics, personalities, economy and culture of the country you're visiting.

It can sound a lot like one of those tours to exotic locales that colleges now arrange for alumni, except that the taxpayer is picking up much of the bill. And let me assure you, it's not a modest bill. A military plane costs an estimated $10,000 an hour to operate — and that's before you factor in the costs of the actual visit on the ground.

Given Americans' distaste for letting their public officials enjoy unusual privileges, you might be tempted to deride government-sponsored travel as a waste of time and money. But despite everything I've just described, I don't think it is.

The reason is that the alternative — privately sponsored travel — is worse. If a group with an interest in legislation is paying for a trip, it enjoys an extraordinary advantage, because it has those politicians' undivided attention and creates obligations to the group. If you control the transportation, then you control much of the official's itinerary. This is why Congress has sensibly changed the rules governing travel and begun to restrict privately sponsored trips.

And members of Congress do need to travel. Even now, many of these trips can hardly be considered junkets: They go to some pretty uncomfortable places, like Iraq and Afghanistan — where the projection of American power means that the bulk of Americans who travel there are the kind who pack an M-16 as an ordinary part of their luggage.

Members of Congress need to see places that our policies affect, whether they're in the glamorous capital cities of the world, in a war zone, in the developing world or even in Antarctica. There's no other way to understand fully what's at stake.

Members of Congress who travel to difficult spots around the world and try to learn first-hand how our policies and programs work (or don't work) on the ground should be commended, not criticized. Elected officials who don't travel are as much of a problem as those who abuse the privilege.

Don't get me wrong: There are certainly some members who vacation on the public dime. And there's no question that opportunities to keep expenses down on official trips should be a matter of course for Congress. Still, railing against all congressional travel isn't especially useful.

Instead, I believe, the process ought to be as transparent as possible. Every proposed trip should have a legislative purpose, its costs should be rigorously, fully and honestly disclosed, and the ethics committees in the House and Senate should be charged with ensuring that congressional travel privileges don't get abused. A detailed report of the trip with all the relevant information, findings and conclusions should be required. That way, Americans can be sure they're getting public-policy value for their money.

Audio Version

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Congrees Needs a Five-Day Work Week

Making Congress more effective does not necessarily require complicated reforms. In fact, a simple change would go a long way: "Congress Needs A Five-Day Work Week," suggests former Congressman Lee Hamilton.

Looking at ways to make Congress a stronger, more effective institution, it's easy for reformers to get dispirited by the sheer complexity of the task. How do you even begin to fix the budget process, or reduce the hold of campaign money on members' attention, or change the lopsided power equation between Congress and the White House? Yet there is one small improvement that Congress could put into effect right now that would go a long way toward making it a more successful body: extend the congressional work week.

I don't mean to suggest that members of Congress are sloughing off. Far from it: they work extremely hard. It's just that much of their work involves tasks other than legislating. Most of the year, they devote only three days a week to this fundamental responsibility; the rest of the time, they're raising money, giving speeches, politicking in the district, traveling on fact-finding visits, meeting with lobbyists and constituents, and attending to the myriad other responsibilities that contemporary members of Congress believe to be part of their job.

Only during the middle days of the week is their attention focused on the hard and often tedious work of crafting legislative language on difficult policy issues — the core, in the end, of their constitutional reason for being.

Even then, if you spend some time on Capitol Hill, you cannot help but be impressed by the frenzied pace that legislators maintain during the few days they're there. They rush from one committee hearing to another; they hold countless meetings with lobbyists or groups of constituents, interrupted by a quick dash to the floor for votes; they give speeches, spend much time with the media, attend receptions and fundraising events, and put out dozens of telephone calls. The members of Congress I meet generally seem very tired, and it's no wonder, given the schedule they keep.

Which is why I often think of a piece of advice I got from the great New York Times newsman James "Scotty" Reston shortly after I arrived in Congress in the mid-1960s. "Make sure," he told me, "that you take the time to put your feet up on the table, look out the window, and think." When I repeated this to some members of Congress recently, they just laughed — they recognized good advice when they heard it, but also recognized that getting even a few minutes to reflect at peace seems an impossibility these days.

The manic schedule that members of Congress maintain costs them more than the chance to get their thoughts in order. I would argue, in fact, that it hurts their ability to be effective as legislators. For the simple truth is that good legislating takes time. It demands the patient pursuit of consensus, the working through of alternatives, the ability to test ideas in debate, and a willingness to build the broad consensus that is necessary for effective legislation.

All of this is pretty much impossible if you usually devote only three — or three and a half — days a week to the work of the Congress. Many members don't have the opportunity to get to know one another well, and therefore to build the trust required to work across party and ideological lines. Time for debate and deliberation — key constitutional responsibilities — gets constrained.

The opportunities multiply for pursuing delaying tactics, playing against the clock, or, in the Senate, threatening a filibuster. Leaders have more leeway to circumvent good democratic process by cramming complex legislation into last-minute, must-pass legislative vehicles. The cramped congressional schedule, in other words, curtails the deliberative process and encourages the dysfunctional habits that the American people have come to identify with Congress.

This is why returning to a five-day work week on Capitol Hill, at least for three out of every four weeks, is so important.

I recognize that it is politically difficult to pull off — the jet airplane has made returning home to the district so easy that members of Congress feel they must do so every Thursday evening or risk alienating their constituents and the local media. But if they're interested in producing good legislation, there is no substitute for time spent doing so.

A longer work week in Washington would give them the chance to build the ties they need to work together, to craft legislation without constantly looking at the clock, to overcome the delaying tactics that have so frustrated policy-makers in recent years, and to make more rapid progress on the truly difficult issues that confront Congress with such regularity these days. It might even, every so often, give them a chance to put their feet up on the table, look out the window, and spend some time pondering what's best for the American people.

Audio Version

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Sotomayor Hearings Were Hardly Oversight

One of Congress's most important oversight roles is thoroughly to examine presidential nominees who will be making U.S. policy. This includes Supreme Court nominees, and on this score, says former Congressman Lee Hamilton, "The Sotomayor Hearings Were Hardly 'Oversight.'"

Over four days of hearings into the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked her 583 questions. Yet when they were done, we knew little more of importance than we did at the beginning.

To be sure, everyone did his or her job. Senators asked good questions about weighty issues facing this country, from gun rights to how far the executive branch can go in terrorism surveillance. Judge Sotomayor herself laid out the complex history and reasoning behind some notable Supreme Court decisions. Everything went smoothly, there were no headline-grabbing catastrophes, the Obama administration was pleased — in short, for the political establishment these were successful hearings.

Yet I found them singularly unsatisfying, and for a simple reason: despite senators' obvious preparation and repeated attempts to learn more about Judge Sotomayor's views, they failed to illuminate the things we really need to know about her.

This was in no small part due to Judge Sotomayor's masterful adherence to a formula perfected by several nominees before her, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Samuel Alioto and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is an approach designed to advance an agenda shared by the nominee and the White House — to get confirmed with a minimum of fuss. It includes:
— avoiding direct responses to questions on legal issues while showing a firm command of the considerations involved;
— carefully articulating relevant precedent while declining to reveal how one feels about it;
— taking care to be unflappable and polite, answering each senator as if his or her question were the most important of the hearing;
— and claiming the high road of not answering abstract or hypothetical questions while construing as many questions as possible as falling into this category.

Above all, Judge Sotomayor — like any number of nominees before her — adhered to two myths that senators have historically been reluctant to puncture.

The first is that judges do not legislate from the bench. The truth is, judges of all persuasions do this all the time. When the law is not clear — and as a former member of Congress, I can tell you that a lot of legislation is not clear, because one of the ways Congress reaches consensus is by leaving language ambiguous — then a judge has to decide what it means. And that's making law.

The second myth was repeatedly cited by Judge Sotomayor. Intensely aware of the tricky partisan politics around her years-old "wise Latina" remark, she maintained that judges should not exercise personal discretion in deciding cases, only the precedent of the law. Yet judging is a complex process, and smart people apply the law differently based on their own experience and opinions. In other words, they use personal discretion. If they didn't, then every decision facing the Court would be decided 9-0.

Because the Senate Judiciary Committee was unable to break through these polite pretenses, the American people came away from the Sotomayor hearings with little idea of what kind of justice she will be, and in particular with few indications of how she would rule.

This makes little sense. The Supreme Court, whatever the official mythology, is one of the prime policy-making bodies in Washington; it makes law with every case it decides. As citizens of a democratic government, are we not entitled to know more about how a Justice Sotomayor would think about the cases before her?

To be sure, on questions she might be called upon to decide in short order, there might be legitimate cause to decline to answer questions. But that right should be exercised narrowly. On the whole, Americans would have been far better served had we been able to learn her positions on abortion, executive versus legislative power, gun rights, privacy, and a raft of other issues.

That, after all, is what legislative oversight is about, and it is why I am critical of the Senate's current process for deciding on a Supreme Court nomination. We need to know as much as possible about the people who will fill this vitally important role in the nation's policy-making apparatus. It is Congress's responsibility, as the arm of the federal government closest to the American people, to ensure that we do.

Instead, by allowing itself to be persuaded by the politically expedient argument that justice is blind, the Senate has merely ensured that up to the moment a new justice actually puts on the robes of the highest court in the land, the American people will be, too.

Audio Version

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Private Lives of Public Officials

Looking at recent revelations about the private misconduct of a series of public officials, you might ask what the public response ought to be. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton says that when it comes to the private lives of public officials, that decision is up to each of us individually.

As happens every so often, we have recently been through a spate of embarrassing reports about the lives of prominent public officials. Adulterous affairs by Nevada Senator John Ensign, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and former presidential candidate John Edwards, entanglements in prostitution by Louisiana Senator David Vitter and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer — these are just the latest in a long line of dismaying revelations about people in whom the American voters once put their trust.

Celebrities often disappoint. Baseball players use steroids; track stars and internationally known bicyclists enhance their performance with chemicals; entertainers slip into alcohol- or drug-induced misbehavior; ministers run away with their choir directors.

Politicians are no different, with actions that raise issues about their judgment, self-control, and basic integrity. They are public figures, but they are also all too human, with all the strengths and flaws that attach to the human condition.

The question, of course, is what do we do when their private lives go off the rails? And the answer, I'm afraid, is that there is no answer: Each of us can only respond according to his or her own lights.

I still remember, for instance, a single day in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that beset the presidency of Bill Clinton. Two constituents of mine, both strong Clinton supporters, spoke publicly about their reactions. One commented that he still believed Clinton was a strong and effective president, whatever his personal behavior. The other declared that he was appalled by the whole affair and could never bring himself to support Clinton again. Both were intensely personal reactions.

Because there are no set rules when it comes to this sort of thing, there is also little consistency when it comes to the long-term results. Some politicians' careers have been undone or badly sidetracked — think of Spitzer, Edwards, or former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey — while others have suffered uncomplimentary attention for a few weeks and then picked up their careers where they left off.

In the end, a politician's fate often rests in the hands of the voters, who must use their own judgment about that politician's values, performance, and abilities. Voters tend to prefer politicians who share their values and signal that they'd make similar choices on ideological issues — indeed, the question of how much weight to place on character issues often depends on whether or not we agree on a politician's positions.

But if voters see hypocrisy — behavior that the politician in question would have been quick to condemn in others — they are less likely to be tolerant, and can be merciless.

There is another question that has to come up in such cases, and that is whether the misbehavior is truly personal, or instead threatens to bring discredit to the institution in which the politician serves. This is illustrated in the House of Representatives, where the official name of the committee overseeing members' behavior is not — despite its wide use — the "House Ethics Committee," but rather the House Standards of Official Conduct Committee. Its focus is less on ethical misconduct in general than on actions that relate to official conduct and that might undermine the integrity of the institution or affect a member's performance of his or her official duties.

A House member's extra-marital affair with a neighbor, for instance, would probably not lead to any formal committee involvement — in that case, the House would leave questions of punishment up to the voters back home. But a member's affair with a lobbyist, or with a paid member of the staff — and certainly with a congressional page — would lead to a much tougher look by the committee and the House as a whole. In some cases, important questions need to be investigated and answered: Was public money involved? Did a politician abuse his or her position of power? Were any laws broken?

This means that sometimes — rarely to be sure — the House or Senate takes action to remove the member from Congress. Yet other times he may leave because of actions taken by the courts. And sometimes he decides to resign from office midterm or not run for re-election.

Yet often the decision is left up to the voter, and in that case each of us will have to make our own judgments. We may be disappointed when a political leader's personal vulnerabilities or weaknesses come to light, but how that affects our willingness to support him or her is a deeply personal decision.

As voters, we're asked all the time to make decisions about politicians based on incomplete or insufficient information. When an elected official misbehaves, all we can do is to make the best decision we can, rooted in what we know about the case and our own personal reaction.

Audio Version