Policy Today magazine cover politician in black and white
August 9, 2006

If you're looking for a member of Congress with the academic credentials and practical experience to weigh in on the Hill's current political dynamic, Oklahoma's Tom Cole is a good bet. PT sat down with the former college history and politics professor to discuss the intersection of local and national interests in Washington

PT: There has been some debate recently about the way local interests are represented within national policies. Could you talk about the intersection between the two, and how well local and national interests are integrated when crafting federal policy?

Cole: I think that local interests are actually quite well represented. Most of the representatives I know are very sensitive to the concerns of their districts. Beyond that, I think that local interests have banded together into national movements much more effectively than they have at any other point in American history, or at least over the last 20-30 years. There are so many different associations that have very effective lobbies in Washington, and they are very good at finding local members to help push their national policy agenda, either by coming to the Hill or visiting with you at your district office.

PT: You mentioned that things have changed over the past 20-30 years. Are people just organizing better, or is there more to it?

Cole: Well, it's a lot easier to mobilize grassroots and direct them. Sure, individual companies and interests have always been able to come together, but their ability to form national organizations really allows them to magnify their influence. They can do it through everything from constant lobbying and education campaigns to direct political action. If anything, localities are at least as well represented at the national level as they have been at any time in history.

Plus, if you look at the amount of time representatives spend in their district, that's telling as well. Most representatives live in their localities outside of Washington all the time. That wasn't the case 25-30 years ago. Long distance telephone calls used to be a big deal, now they're nothing. That's without mentioning the Internet and other technology. Even jet air travel has revolutionized the manner of the job. The number of people from my district that I see up here on the Hill is truly shocking, and dramatically more than it was when I first got into this business as a district director for a congressman.

PT: That sounds like a double-edged sword. Doesn't it also make it more difficult for members to reconcile all of the new information within the policymaking framework?

Cole: It does. I think it is more difficult now, and it fragments the policy process. It may educate you and make you more effective individually, but it makes it much more difficult to cooperate with people from other parts of the country and different interest groups. It makes it difficult to know where to focus, as well. A lot of people locally don't understand how much of our work is done in committee, and they wonder why we can't be as responsive on certain issues. Ultimately, the more things you have to compromise with people on, the more difficult it is to come to an agreement.

PT: We certainly hear all about the partisanship in Congress now, but it seems like this relatively new deluge of outside pressures could bring new intra-party strains as well.

Cole: Without a doubt. Of course, Madison envisioned that. He spoke of the multiplicity of interests being the best safeguard for liberty. The founders didn't anticipate the role of parties though, and for all of their problems, the parties do help boil the issues down to a choice. Thank God we don't have a European-style system, as big and diverse as this country is. If Congress were the Knesset, it simply couldn't function.

PT: Does party leadership hold more or less sway over the agenda than it has in the past?

Cole: I think probably more. I think that's partly a function of our competitive political environment. We had what looked to be an almost stable Democratic majority for so long; it made party leaders less important because they weren't as operative in maintaining the majority. They were more important with respect to mediating and organizing the different factions inside the parties. Now, what your leadership does is really important to whether or not you maintain the majority. At least under the Republicans—whether they like to admit it or not—power has gravitated to the leadership. The leaders are therefore very important in deciding what we're going to do, setting the agenda and then coming to a final deal. There's always some tension with some committee chairs, but at the end of the day, it's not like the 50's and 60's when chairmen were almost like barons. They could easily defy even the speaker.

PT: What about in the candidacy stage? How much influence does party leadership have over selecting and promoting new candidates throughout the process?

Cole: In terms of other people's candidacies, decisions on the Hill don't make much difference. The game up here is pretty simple: it's R's and D's. If you think someone can win, it doesn't matter if you like them or not, or even if you agree with them or not. If they're going to add to your numbers, you're going to put everything you have behind that individual to see that they win. That's where leadership comes in, but that's only after the candidate has become the nominee. Before that, leaders generally aren't involved.

Our leaders are also very important to achieving your objectives once you get here. Groups like the Club for Growth and Emily's List can do a lot to help me get to Washington, but once I'm here, they can't put me on Ways and Means. Once you get to Washington, their power ends, but that's precisely where the power of party leadership begins.

PT: Congressman, thank you for your time.

Tom Cole represents Oklahoma's 4th Congressional district. He serves on the House Rules Committee and the Standards of Official Conduct Committee.