What would you do if you were elected to serve in Congress? What would be your first item of business? The environment, national security, education, health care, the budget? Unfortunately, for many, when you are first elected to Congress it seems you're treated much like a freshman in high school, you're even called a freshman. For many, their first time in Congress is just about getting their feet wet and learning the ropes, mostly due to the system of seniority, which means the longer you serve, the more power you receive. It takes many years, decades even, to serve at the head of a committee. So, if you are expecting to do a lot in Congress and make big waves, unfortunately, you may not be able to, right away.
Senator Barbara Boxer was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1983 as a Democrat from California and served there until she assumed office as a senator in 1993. She was elected into office during the 1992 wave dubbed the 'Year of the Women', when four new Democratic women were elected to the U.S. Senate, the largest number of women ever elected at one time. It was also the first time a state had elected two women to represent them. California sent two Democrats to Washington: Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. It took 21 years for Boxer to amass the power and influence that she has today. Add the 10 years she spent in the House and that's 31 years as a Washington insider. She is currently chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee and of the Select Committee on Ethics, and is the only senator to preside over two committees simultaneously. Boxer is the third most senior woman in the U.S. Senate and eleventh in seniority overall, which is why her announcement of retirement in 2016 means women are losing an ardent supporter. And with only 20 women serving in the U.S. Senate that doesn't leave many to take her place.
I used to think that being a politician didn't mean making a career of it; that one should serve a few terms and then get out to let the next person interested have a go. I'm still in favor of term limits, which would probably reduce some of power and seniority struggles within, but if you think about it, in the current system, if we want good, experienced policy makers, we need to have dedicated people in office for a long time. It takes awhile to get the lay of the land and to cultivate the relationships you need to pass laws. Now, I'm not saying that the longer one is in office necessarily means the more effective they are. In fact, there are many people in office who do a whole lot of nothing, but we have to acknowledge that change doesn't (and shouldn't) happen overnight, and it hardly seems to happen in one term. So why not look at politics as a profession?
Perhaps if we treated politics as something to aspire to for the long term we could return to the idea of serving communities and the nation as a badge of honor. Parents don't advocate for their children to be president like they used to. In fact, many parents probably discourage it. Being a politician has a bad name. Perhaps if it was considered a position of prestige and not just power more women would want to run and get involved early.
I've never spoken to Senator Boxer, but I'd like to. I'd like to know about her journey into politics and navigating those marble hallways. Not many women do it and she did start honing her leadership skills early relative to most women. She was a journalist, aide under U.S. Representative John L. Burton, and was the first woman to serve as board president on the Marin County Board of Supervisors. She was in her early 40s when she headed to Washington and is a long time supporter of equality and reproductive rights. While it's important to encourage women of all ages to run for office, we will never see an equal amount of women serving with men if we wait to encourage women to run for office after they've done everything else first. We will never see men's attitudes fully change when it comes to women in leadership positions, and we will never see policies that have more impact on women and children having the attention they deserve. Boxer will leave behind a legacy, but who will pick up where she left off? So I ask, if you were elected to Congress, what would you do? Start thinking about it now.
*Check out the full article about Senator Boxer by Lucia Graves in the Washington Journal HERE.