By Mark Lazenby
Once again, the American public have rated nurses as the most trusted professionals, as they have for the past 15 years. Members of Congress were at the bottom of the list, as they have been for the past five years. What’s the difference between nurses and members of Congress when it comes to trust? And what can members of Congress learn from this difference?
We trust people when people prove themselves trustworthy. Trustworthy people, the philosopher Onora O’Neil says, are reliable, competent, and honest.
Anyone who has been cared for by a nurse knows that nurses are reliable. They’ll do what they say they’ll do. It may take them a while, but usually this is because they are busy. Research has shown that when nurses are less busy, they deliver even more reliable care.
After years of stubborn refusal to pass laws and perform basic duties, such as to confirm appointed judges, some members of Congress appear unrepentant about their unreliability.
Nurses pass a national certification exam, and they take mandated continuing education courses throughout their career. But nurses truly demonstrate their competence by delivering quality patient care day after day.
Perhaps Congress could institute training for newly elected members on how to govern. The syllabus might include Plato’s Republic or Rousseau’s The Social Contract. Yet many members of Congress come with government or law degrees. These degrees notwithstanding, they could prove their competence by performing their governing duties.
By and large, we trust that nurses are honest. For example, we trust they do not lie about the medications they are about to give. We often ask for them for verification, but we do so out of fear of human error, not fear that they may have malicious motives. After all, nurses have little reason to be dishonest. They don’t want to harm their patients, and they don’t gain income or promotion by bringing more money into the hospital or clinic through trumping up tests or treatments that aren’t necessary. Nurses gain no reward from their honesty beyond knowing that they’ve done their job well, but their patients do.
Members of Congress are not in office for underhanded reasons; surely they have a sense of public service. But unlike nurses, it seems that members of Congress are not disinterested. Many are rich. In 2015, the median net worth of a member of Congress was $1,029,505, compared to $56,355 for the average American household. And they tend to get richer during their time in public service.
But there’s one more quality – perhaps the most important – that makes nurses trustworthy. Nurses care. In hospitals, clinics, schools, prisons, and homes across America, nurses care for others. Sure, nurses earn a paycheck, but as a nurse, I can tell you that on many a day, the paycheck does not make up for the stress of having another person’s life in my hands. Nor does it soothe my aching feet, sore back, and hands cracked from repeated washing. We nurses care for others because it is the right thing to do. We care for others regardless of who they are. We show we care through our daily acts of nursing for all people who need it.
On the first day of the 115th United States Congress, a majority of the members of the House of Representatives voted to weaken the Office of Congressional Ethics. It makes one wonder for whom these members care. To be sure, there must be many members of Congress who care for all people in their constituencies, not just for those who are likely to re-elect them or those who may help them to enrich themselves. But to improve their position on the “Most Trusted” poll, perhaps members of Congress could follow nurses’ example. Perhaps the American public would trust members of Congress more if, through their repeated acts of governing on behalf of all Americans, they showed us they care.
Agency San Francisco
San Francisco, California
Charles L. Berman
Liz Di Bernardo
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