Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Surviving in Congress is a lot like surviving in life. Hint: Kindergarten was a big help

This marks my first column for the Miami Herald. Hopefully, I will become a regular habit for you each month, so let’s get to know each other.

Everyone has a unique perspective, based on individual experiences. No one shares exactly the experiences of others. But we also learn from the knowledge of others, and for my first column I’ll share some observations from my almost 30 years in Congress — and thank you for that honor.

How did I survive all those years?

First, in order to accomplish anything meaningful in any business or endeavor — and especially in the U.S. Congress — you must be in it for the long haul. However, both external and internal factors focus on short-term results. In politics, this short-term perspective, although frequently counter-productive, dominates and therefore crowds out thinking and actions that would bring positive outcomes — that ultimately come to fruition on somebody else’s watch. Unfortunately, democracies and elected officials suffer from such short-term thinking.

Second, long-term perspectives teach us that every issue or development is not a crisis. I often hear, “What we have here today is the biggest thing ever.” That is only true until the next biggest thing comes along tomorrow. As we all should remember, patience is a virtue. A common lament today — “The country has never been so divided” — ignores our Civil War, the use of the military to suppress labor strikes, the failure of Reconstruction and the reign of terror against African Americans in the South, and on and on.

We need to recall, and understand, the “Chicken Little” allegory; constantly yelling that the sky is falling precludes understanding of real problems.

Third, the common quest for immediate credit and gratification is toxic and destructive. When collateral effects and unintended consequences are ignored, or not even explored, we pay a high price in the long run. The well-recognized but lingering problem of inadequate funding for Social Security is an outstanding example: Social Security is an essential program for elders and a key component of our economic framework. But neither supporters nor critics seem willing to bite the bullet when it comes to making the program financially secure past the year 2020.

The short-term gratification of lower contributions and promised (but unfunded) benefits is not in anyone’s ultimate interest. Yet the immediate sunshine masks the lack of preparation for the inevitable storm.

We need to remember a second allegory here — the three little pigs. Two little pigs built houses of straw and sticks, which collapsed under the onslaught from the wolf. But the wise pig built a house of bricks, which withstood the wolf’s huffing and puffing — and saved the other little pigs.

The problem with Social Security is that no one appears willing to be the wise pig thinking about the long-term. But as the bestselling book tells us, much of what we need to know in life we should have learned in kindergarten.

Fourth, comprehending other people’s frame of mind is essential if one wishes to understand or influence them — or even just to communicate with them. When I chaired the Foreign Affairs Committee, I regularly saw this dynamic play out. A member would propose an amendment to a bill, which other members would immediately oppose before the sponsor could even begin to explain it. This approach always reminded me of Alice in Wonderland: “First the verdict, then the trial.” Not understanding other points of view creates unnecessary conflict and tension, in committee work as well as in life.

Fifth, listening to others is in our own self-interest. Ironically, we often fail to recognize this self-interest and ignore it. Listening is very hard to do, so we often are talking to ourselves in a conversation with others (and agreeing with ourselves in self-validation). We need to step out of the echo chambers, only hanging around people who think like us.

We need to get outside of our bubbles. Incredibly, other people sometimes have good ideas. Likewise, giving credit to others works wonders and does not diminish one’s own contribution. We should have learned in kindergarten that there are enough gold stars to go around.

Am I saying that Congress is like kindergarten? Yes. But so is your business and most of your other endeavors. These five easy pieces, as I call them, should be guideposts for understanding the underlying simplicity of our many difficult tasks.

I believe in the promise of Congress, just as I believe in the promise of America.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen spent almost 30 years in Congress representing South Florida. This is the first of her monthly columns for the Herald. Send her your comments at HeraldIleana@gmail.com.

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