CongressLine: Running for Congress

By Paul Jenks, Published on May 9, 2008

I have had the opportunity for the past two years to run marathons and monitor Congress at the same time and at first the experiences seemed like two completely different tasks. The more races I ran, however, the more I concluded that the two are pretty similar and pretty bizarre.

My marathon running is an odd hobby for me, someone who prior to two years ago never did anything athletic since grade school. It was a brand new experience, which I thought was pretty simple, much like I thought the fundamentals of Congress were just as simple as I had learned in school. I was wrong on both counts. Everyone knows well the fundamentals of Congress and of running; it is the mechanics of both of them that are difficult. The fundamentals are what they are supposed to do; the mechanics are how they actually work.

Marathon running one would think is pretty basic; humans have been running since the dawn of the species. Actually, endurance running is one of the traits of our species that enabled its survival. We all should instinctively know how to run long distances, but we do not.

A while ago I noted that my sister in law called me in a panic about a bill introduced in Congress proposing to reinstitute the military draft. Since it has been introduced it is serious, and going to happen, right? No. In order for a bill to pass, a whole series of private and public agreements are needed from a wide range of parties. Reports need to verify the veracity of claims. Coalitions need to be nurtured. Often elections need to be held to change the mix of supporters and opponents. It is an art that has a legal framework. Successful distance running also is an art, albeit one with a biological framework.

Little did I realize that there are dozens of different theories on how to get an overweight couch potato to run 26.2 miles in less than 6 or so hours. My sister in law insisted the draft was going to be reinstituted because there was a bill in Congress, just as much as I thought marathon training would be as simple as practicing around my neighborhood park to get me to finish the race. I didn’t consider the twelve pairs of shoes needed, nor that all the cotton running shirts I had were useless or that you run differently up hills or the shocking fact that you should seek out the hills to practice running. My sister in law did not realize that the bill is necessary, but not sufficient, for passage just as I did not realize that running shoes are necessary but not sufficient for the marathon finish line.

The complexity of running marathons or being a Congressperson is not something truly unique, however. Many things are simple in theory but complex in practice. A second notion that slowly began to intrigue me was the emotional aspects of running compared to my perceptions of the emotional impacts on a member of Congress. I was very unprepared to the extreme emotional toll of the marathon race. In four hours you go from anxious enthusiasm at the start, then the happy endorphins of the early miles, to drudging boredom of the middle miles, then the seemingly unbearable pain beginning at mile 20 or so, finished off by the exuberance of the finish. One friend of mine said after my last race, “If I had a gun at mile 22, I would have shot myself.” Of course 30 minutes later, he was considering his next race. A few folks swear it off forever; most do not.

The world of a Congressperson is not that time compressed, but consider all the various emotions a member may undergo over the course of their election and service. The hopeful optimism prior to an election season, then the actual election. To be elected to the Senate or the House of Representatives with thousands or millions of people who never met you personally, putting their seal of approval upon you must be interesting. Not many people get such acclaim in this world. Then of course there are the drudgery, the media invasion, the unexpected curve balls, plus the need to learn about the complex mechanics of a job that you may have thought pretty straightforward. Once some members have done and seen it all, a few swear it off forever, but most do not. Why would anyone want run for office? Why would anyone want to run a marathon? They are two very similar questions, whose answers are based, in my opinion, on the emotional roller coaster of the task.

Unexpected events happen in every walk of life. Marathon running and legislatures are no different than anything else. But I expected that running would have some regular orders of how to deal with them but it does not, so you hope you trained well enough, and muddle through. One would think that Congress would have similar mechanics to deal with the odd war, or economic recession, bad agency decision, or sex scandal. But they do not, so they (and we) hope they have wise caucus leadership and muddle through.

My first marathon was in Dublin, Ireland. I had gone through a program that supposedly prepared me for completion. I followed the six months of running religiously. I learned about all the mechanics of running. I learned what to wear, what to do about rain or cold. I learned what to eat, especially the morning of the race. But I was hit by a curve ball that believe it or not, no one, not even wise Internet portals, taught me to handle – wind, strong wind. Wind is not a good thing for runners as it dehydrates you. Sure, it is fine at your back, but I ran completely around the city of Dublin in all directions and the wind was never at my back.

Last year, Congress addressed the immigration issue practically all year. But they had not planned to so, however. At the beginning of the year it was in no party plan for the year. Outside influences foisted it upon the institution. You would think that they would have had an army of people to jump on such a major topic and figure out a workable solution or at least a bi-partisan interim compromise. That did not happen. Democrats were split between liberals and labor. Republicans were even more fractured, with the President a big proponent and a large contingent of congressional Republicans against it. It wasn’t planned, the debate went poorly, and the issue now festers. Congress muddled through with the experience and leadership that it had, much like I muddled through the unexpected wind as best as I could. I finished the race, at least.

A corollary to the unplanned circumstances comparison is also interesting. In running a marathon you get dumber every mile you run. Your heart and legs take up the energy and your brain basically goes on autopilot. So if you need to make a complex decision at mile 24, which happened to me in the Oslo marathon, you better have etched the answers into your subconscious brain before hand while training because you will not be a good original thinker at the time. I will not comment on the increasing stupidity of Congress as time goes on, but the best Congress people are the ones who have trained themselves to think correctly at such moments, when their brains are not working.

Long distance running has sometimes been described as a “managed injury,” meaning that it really is an injury waiting to happen and you just manage to minimize the injury that will happen as you run on hard pavement for many miles. Anyone following Congressional activities in our democracy could easily see this parallel. Congress is always managing to try to avoid disaster. The mechanics of Congress can be described as “managed chaos.” In a way runners are better at it, since they can stop running. But Congress cannot do such a thing. Legislation is never perfect; compromise on major details and the insertion of difficult minor details to gain passage often makes legislation messy and almost always in need of revision. The institution by its nature is never ahead of the curve; it is right on the edge of it and, just like runners, frequently falls off or over.

Finally, I have come to the conclusion, after many races, that there are very real differences in runners – genetic differences between people that give one an edge over another. It does not prevent me from continuing however. In Congress, personality is the key. You could be a genuine introvert and be a very successful political person, but the odds are in favor of the optimistic extrovert, who savors the roller-coaster ride. In running, if you don’t have the genetic disposition for distance running, you have even more work to do, but you can do it. A marathon is a three to five hour ordeal. Getting a bill through the mechanics of Congress is also an ordeal, but one that takes much longer. Hopefully our Republic is better off when Congress reaches the finish line. I know the people who follow the process are just as exhausted as the Congresspersons, even a regular marathon runner like me.