Politics: Be part of it

March 24, 2013
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Editorial


For years I complained about all of the lawyers in politics. About a decade ago, I started sounding disingenuous even to myself. I decided to either be quiet (a daunting challenge) or step up to the plate. So, in 2001, I “ran” for committeeman. That is the lowest, most grassroots, and least time-consuming elective office I could think of. I have continued to hold it through several election cycles (not that there has ever been any competition); I have found it surprisingly educational.

I believe it is important for physicians in general and otolaryngologists specifically to pay attention to legislation and political activity. The actions of state and federal legislatures control our ability to provide high-quality medical care. If we don't express opinions and monitor proposed legislation, then laws will be enacted without our input and we will have to live with them. If we have opportunities to influence laws for the better and do not take the trouble to exercise those opportunities, then we do not evoke much sympathy or carry much weight when we complain about the results. Hence, I assumed that being part of the political process, even at such a low level, would provide insights.

A committeeman helps support candidates (in some cases select candidates), helps get out the vote, and works at the polls on Election Day. When I first sought this position, I assumed I would get to know a few candidates casually, particularly candidates for local and state offices. It never occurred to me that being a committeeman was a “big deal” in anyone's eyes. After all, the constituents in my precinct number only about 1,000 voters. However, I was wrong. I have had friends for decades who were career politicians, including people in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress.

I was astonished to find that these politicians looked at me completely differently (and listened to me more attentively) when they found out I had become a committeeman. I still am not sure whether that is because professional politicians understand the importance of every dollar and every vote, or because people who hold any elective office (however modest) are part of the process; but there is no question that my election enhanced my access and credibility. In addition, I have gotten to know more politicians at various levels better than I had anticipated.

Talking with local, state, and national candidates (including those who belong to both parties) has been very educational. They have shared ideas, concepts, and political rationale personally while chatting at home or at the polls, as well as at relatively intimate meetings of committee people. I have learned to understand them better and to appreciate (if not always agree with) how they think. I have been able to share with them ideas, concepts, and problems important to all physicians, and especially to otolaryngologists. I believe some of them even altered their opinions and broadened their vision based on some of these discussions, and their legislative actions have been more insightful than they might have been otherwise.

I have also learned through my service as a committeeman, and through my service as president of and council member for the Pennsylvania Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (PAO-HNS), not only the importance of financial support for political candidates and causes of importance to otolaryngologists and our patients, but also the fact that the financial support does not have to be extremely high. Before I got involved with elective office and with lobbying to the PAO-HNS and other organizations, I thought that contributions in the thousands of dollars were required to have any impact, or to be noticed and heard by state politicians. It is certainly true that generous contributions are helpful (as the trial lawyers know well, for example), but a contribution of even a few hundred dollars from an individual or society's political action committee is appreciated, noticed, and remembered by politicians.

This does not mean that we can buy physician-friendly and patient-friendly votes. It does mean that the politicians who regulate our lives listen more to people who are actively involved in the political process as office holders, or at least contributors, than they do to people on the sidelines.

Holding even the most basic of elective offices has been unexpectedly gratifying, educational, and politically effective. The commitment requires surprisingly little time except on election days. I would encourage other otolaryngologists to get off the sidelines and into the fray.

Robert T. Sataloff, MD, DMA, FACS

Editor-in-Chief

Ear, Nose & Throat Journal


Ear Nose Throat J. 2013 March;92(3):98-100