At a public gathering the other day, someone asked me how I’d sum up my views on Congress. It was a good question, because it forced me to step back from worrying about the current politics of Capitol Hill and take a longer view.
Congress, I said, does some things fairly well. Its members for the most part want to serve their constituents and the country. They may be ambitious — it’s hard to be a successful politician if you’re not — but they’re not motivated primarily by personal interest. Most are people of integrity who have chosen to try to advance the national interest and are willing to work within our agitated political environment.
They also strive to reflect their constituents’ views. They’re not always successful at this — I think members of Congress tend to under-appreciate voters’ pragmatism and over-estimate their ideological purity. Still, they’re politicians: their success rests on being accessible to their constituents, understanding what they want, and aligning themselves with that interest.
For all the attractive individual qualities that members of Congress display, however, their institutional performance falls short. Talented though they are, the institution they serve does not work very well. They argue endlessly, pander to contributors and powerful interests, posture both in the media and in countless public meetings, and in the end produce very little. They discuss and debate a lot of problems, but don’t create effective results.
This may be because many members of our national legislature have a constricted view of what it means to be a legislator. They’re satisfied with making a political statement by giving a speech, casting a vote, or getting a bill through the chamber they serve in, rather than writing legislation that will make it through both houses of Congress, get signed by the President, and become a law. Their aim seems to be partisan and ideological, rather than a constructive effort to solve the nation’s problems.
Similarly, they undermine their ability to oversee the executive branch by conducting hearings for political gain rather than to scrutinize government activities or develop effective policy directives. Many of our representatives have become so reliant on their staff for knowledge about public policy and the details of federal agencies that in off-the-cuff debate they can be untethered and misinformed. Small wonder that Congress has had trouble being productive. The days appear to be over when members of Congress strove to be masters of their subject matter and legislators in fact as well as in name.
Forced to spend so much time raising money and listening to well-heeled people and groups, they also seem to have trouble seeing current affairs from the perspective of ordinary people. They fall captive to the politics of any given issue, rather than thinking about the much harder question of how you govern a country with all its residents in mind. They don’t see the necessity, in a divided Congress and a divided country, of negotiation and compromise.
Congressional tradition has created a legislative process that should encourage fact-finding, searching for remedies, and finding common ground. It should not work solely by majority rule; decisions spring from consultation with many voices, balancing minority and majority views, and fair-minded process. This is not what today’s members of Congress do, however. Instead, they short-circuit the committee process; fail to do their homework; dwell on talking points put together by staff and others; give too much power to their leaders; pay too little attention to deliberation; allow insufficient opportunity to debate and vote on major policy amendments; and in general make a mess of the budget — the basic operating instructions for the government.
Process may not be everything, but good process enhances the chance of getting things right — and with each passing year, Congress forgets more and more about what good process looks like.
Plenty of forces are responsible for this state of affairs, from the outsized role of money in the political process to today’s hyper-partisanship to TV-driven sound-bite debates. But in the end, it’s still a source of great frustration to the American people, me included, that well-meaning, talented individuals cannot make the institution work better.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.