We can reimagine the representative

April 8, 2019

New Mexicans are about to choose new lawmakers. In the age of Washington, D.C., gridlock, we should rethink the role we expect our representatives to play.

The past two weeks have brought seismic shifts to our state’s politics. In the coming election, New Mexicans will now pick a new U.S. senator and residents of the 3rd Congressional District will pick a new U.S. representative (“It’s official: Luján jumps into race for U.S. Senate,” April 2).

There’s excitement that comes with electoral change. But we have to reckon with a reality: Congress doesn’t seem to do all that much these days. In an age of divided government, the filibuster, budget shutdowns and constant jostling for partisan advantage, gridlock has become the name of the game.

So, as we contemplate our coming choices, it’s worth asking a simple question: What can a member of Congress actually do to make positive change?

The answer, I believe, is quite a bit. It’s just that we need to reimagine the role of the representative.

As former legislative director for three members of Congress, I’ve seen some lawmakers be extraordinarily effective despite the D.C. gridlock. But here’s the thing: It’s not necessarily in following the constitutionally prescribed congressional job description of passing legislation and approving budgets.

Rather, it’s in bringing people together to envision solutions and then using the power of the office to muster resources to enact those solutions.

Recently, members of New Mexico’s current congressional delegation demonstrated what this looks like. This past month, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small together announced that they successfully advocated for a new $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These members of Congress have been traveling their districts and the state, listening to caregivers and people facing addiction, working with state and local officials to build strategies and share best practices. The money will go directly toward implementing the kinds of solutions they’ve helped devise in partnership with local communities. It’s an example of how lawmakers can make deeply positive impact without necessarily changing laws.

It’s a model of effective service I’ve seen elsewhere. For example, elected officials, including federal lawmakers, in the struggling post-industrial city of Cleveland, Ohio, worked with local residents, activists, business leaders, philanthropists and local government to envision and support a innovative new model of economic development: They helped build a business consortium to launch and grow worker-owned, living-wage enterprises that provide services like catering, energy and cleaning to local hospitals and schools, while investing money back in the community. The elected officials played a key role in securing federal and state grant money, as well as philanthropic support, to pay for needs like workforce training and business seed funding to get the now-successful economic development network off the ground.

Our next members of Congress should take this same model of service as far as possible.

Rather than simply writing bills and giving speeches, our elected leaders should focus on bringing together community members, city councilors, country commissioners, mayors, foundation officials, activists, artists, academic experts and others to imagine and design meaningful solutions to complex problems in New Mexico, like climate change, addiction, public education, water conservation and economic development.

Our next lawmakers should use the powers of the congressional office to find resources to enact those solutions — through petitions to federal agencies, amendments to congressional appropriations measures, appeals to foundations and private businesses, and advocacy to state and local government. Our next lawmakers should also work to actively empower New Mexicans to petition directly for federal grants and policy improvements.

Candidates for Congress will almost certainly advertise their intentions to make sweeping changes to federal law. That’s a good thing. Vision is important. And, yet, at the same time, our incoming leaders should focus on the simple, humble, effective work at which members of Congress can excel: convening people, listening, empowering action.

Justin Talbot Zorn is a Santa Fe- based public policy consultant, writer and small-business owner. He served as legislative director to three Democratic members of Congress.