In this era of high partisanship and low ratings, it's easy to grow disillusioned with government. But I have plenty of reasons to maintain high hopes for the institution of the United States Congress. And that hope was affirmed earlier today when I met with the 2012 Congressional Summer Interns.
With every constituent phone call they answer or letter they open, the enthusiastic young men and women I spoke with this morning do the heavy lifting for our nation's legislators. They are not only witnessing the inner-workings of Congress, but helping connect the American people with their government. And they are doing this for little or no pay.
It can be humbling, but that's what it means to serve. And--whether it pays a salary or not--it serves as a valuable, lifelong lesson.
When I was 16 years old, President John F. Kennedy encouraged all Americans to, "ask not what your country can do for you-- ask what you can do for your country."
Those words were an inspiration to me at the time, and they continue to inspire generations of Americans to enter public service. Whether its the 2.8 million members of the millennial generation who have joined the military since 9/11, the young Teach for America members working in America's most impoverished communities, or the 80,000 AmeriCorps volunteers engaged in service projects across the country, our newest generation of young adults is no exception.
Now, as I said to another group of young people at a college commencement about a year ago, "It's important to remember that American politics has never been for participants who are faint of heart. But what’s astounding –what seems so unlikely– is not only that we’ve made our messy form of democracy work, but that we’ve made it work so well."
Ronald Reagan did this in 1982 when he signed a long-term transportation bill passed to his desk by a Congress with a Democratic majority. And I saw it happen many times during my 14 years in the House of Representatives, including several transportation bills that passed with bipartisan support.
I don't know what happened to the understanding that there are no Democratic roads or Republican rails. But my message to the interns I met with today was clear: We need to get back to work –not only the work it takes to pass a transportation bill in Congress, but the work we’ll create for the thousands of Americans waiting to build new roads, bridges and other projects nationwide.
That means recognizing three truths: That the person across the aisle is not your enemy; that there's more to governing than simply standing in the way of a president from the other party; and that leadership means putting the people's interests first.
When I spoke to the current crop of congressional interns about the need for a return to civility, I saw a lot of heads nodding up and down. They get it.
So, yes, I still have high hopes for the U.S. Congress. And I have faith in America's newest generation of young adults. You should, too.