Rep. John Curtis said if voters want better members of Congress, they need to change who they choose in the ballot box, pointing out elected representatives, including the president, are a reflection of the people who put them there.

“Who can forget the Trump-Biden debate, where it felt like we had two preschoolers on stage interrupting each other and throwing insults at each other?” Curtis asked the audience, speaking of the debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential election. “If those two were replaced on the debate stage by two mirrors that reflected the American people, would the debate have been any different?”

During a 25-minute speech at Utah Valley University’s Fulton Library, Curtis, who represents Utah’s 3rd Congressional District, spoke about the 10 causes of “dysfunctional government” and how to reverse their effects. He called on voters to elect qualified representatives with the character to change the tone and substance of conversations on Capitol Hill. 

“Voters need to decide what they want out of our leaders,” Curtis said. “From my perspective, I see a clear choice: Someone that tells you what you want to hear, or someone that digs in and does the work that you want done.”

While recognizing the influence of other factors, such as incentives created for politicians by low compensation and social media, Curtis put the responsibility for achieving an effective legislature squarely on the shoulders of voters.

“If you want better elected officials, you need to start recognizing real work,” Curtis said, explaining voters must show they care about problem solving more than partisan signaling by casting well-informed votes for candidates who have shown a “pattern of success in their life.”

The speech was part of the Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series and was co-hosted by UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies and the Gary R. Herbert Institute for Public Policy. Former Gov. Gary Herbert attended the event along with university faculty, students, ROTC members and the press.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, hugs former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert after speaking during the Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series in Orem on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The congressman’s first criticism was that members of Congress are rewarded for activism, “viral moments” and blame-shifting. He cited the recent actions of a “small group of Republican members (of Congress)” who Curtis said prolonged the selection of the House speaker and shut down the House floor to boost their reputations as “fighters” as well as their fundraising numbers.

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“Those who play tricks, those who act like spoiled teenagers, raise large amounts of money and get the TV time,” Curtis said, before questioning why media organizations often give prominence to attention-seeking stunts instead of Congress’ bipartisan accomplishments.

Voters must take responsibility for who is representing them, said Curtis, and strive to be better informed by getting news from diverse sources and judging politicians based on “their whole body of work” as opposed to “one vote or tweet.”

Common pitfalls for voters that have led to dysfunction in Congress include preferring good speeches to good leadership characteristics, tolerating politicians’ misbehavior if they are on the right team and immediately assuming bad intentions if they are not, Curtis said.

“We need to be blind when we call out bad behavior, despite our political views or what we stand to gain or lose,” Curtis said.

Curtis added that the prospect of a rematch between President Biden and former President Trump shows the need to look in the mirror and implement Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s initiative to “disagree better.”

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, speaks during the Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series in Orem on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Curtis said he is confident that if voters take their job seriously to elect representatives who exemplify these values, then the country will change toward a better direction.

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During a panel discussion with the Sutherland Institute’s vice president of strategy and communications, Nic Dunn, Curtis acknowledged voters’ attraction toward polarizing rhetoric is based on real frustrations with the ruling class stemming from inflation and government deception, but said that electing someone who promotes themselves as a “fighter” makes legislative solutions on wedge issues, like immigration and national debt, less likely, not more.

For Congress to produce results on the problems that matter most, Curtis said, constituents need to be focused on what matters and not be distracted by the inflammatory happenings of the daily news cycle.

If this change can begin to take place, Curtis said he has no doubt the country’s best days are ahead.

“I look back in history and I can see the country has had some dark moments,” Curtis said at the conclusion of his remarks. “But we have emerged from every one of those better than when we started.”

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, waits to speak during the Sutherland Institute’s 2023 Congressional Series in Orem on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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