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When push comes to shove, members of Congress should stand by their constituents before their party leaders

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Voting is an emotional act. It's also a sign of good citizenship. Every good citizen should vote. What right-thinking citizens would let other voters choose who represents them in Congress? Congressional voting is a must.

Representatives in Congress stand for about 750,000 citizens each. There are 435 representatives and 100 senators. Elected senators represent the entire state. Every 10 years a national census is conducted to determine, in part, how America is divided by congressional districts. Multiplying 435 by 750,000 gives us a rough estimate of how many Americans there are — about 326 million.

Though Congress suffers low approval ratings (recently about 17 percent, according to Gallup), voting for a representative in Congress is one of the most important votes a citizen will cast. Representatives vote on behalf of all citizens in their district as well as for all Americans where public policies are concerned. Tax relief, health care funding and how the federal budget (now about $4 trillion dollars) is spent are among the important votes exercised by representatives. Voters should therefore choose wisely, since they have a stake in the outcome.

In the House, it's "our team against your team." House Democrats usually vote against House Republicans, and vice-versa. Candidates often campaign that they'll be independent and vote the way they want, but the reality is, one usually votes as their leadership demands... or else! Those who go against their political party leaders usually face tremendous pressure to vote with their party. The argument they face is, "Voting with the opponent party jeopardizes the party (and sometimes the president) at the next election."

One former member, a committed anti-abortion Democrat, voted against his instincts when it was demanded that he do so in order to narrowly pass the Obamacare legislation (the Affordable Care Act). He resigned from the House thereafter and the House lost a fine member who was not allowed to vote his conscience. Republican members are affected, too. One North Carolina Republican member was compelled to vote for a bill, a measure supported by President George W. Bush, affecting the textile industry in his own state. Afterwards, he was in tears and lost his next election.

Yet, having a "seat at the table" can benefit a district. A congressional leader elected by his or her peers not only receives a tremendous honor, but the leader can also shape public policy, and is oftentimes even able to advocate for a district directly with the president who controls one branch of the federal government and the federal bureaucracy that implements America's laws. Usually a freshman House member is not afforded the benefit of legislative support that a veteran leader is afforded. Of course, any elected leader must advocate for his or her district when seated at the leadership table.

Another sign of a representative's effectiveness is how many bills or laws he or she has passed while in office. Representatives must have a hand in passing legislation important to a district, either by leadership position or committee assignment. Love or hate for Congress usually stems from how many bills touching constituents have passed, and whether a representative is therefore effective. Voters should always ask themselves whether the representative has their best interests at heart as they cast their vote for any candidate.

Travel home for a 5th District of Washington state representative from Washington, D.C., is difficult and takes a toll on the stability of one's life. Yet citizens want to see their representative regularly. Voters should judge incumbent candidates on the times they come home, the number of town hall meetings they hold and how communicative incumbents are. Accessibility is also critical to any incumbent's re-election chances. Incumbents should return home regularly to their district, no matter the personal sacrifice or hardship on family. If an incumbent won't return to talk to voters, the representative should seek other work. Any incumbent who returns regularly should reap their constituents' respect.

Voters are powerful, more so than other leaders in Congress or even lobbyists. Representatives elected by peers should recognize the fine line they must draw between constituents and leadership peers. Choosing constituents over leaders is wise, since without constituents, one would never achieve leadership team status.

Voters should consider how many bills any incumbent has sponsored and seen enacted into law, whether a seat at the leadership table helps a representative convey 5th District priorities and whether either candidate has compassion for constituents. Voters should also be skeptical of any challenger who asserts that he or she will be independent of political party influence. ♦

— George Nethercutt represented the 5th District of Washington in Congress from 1995-2005.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Representing Home"

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