There are a lot of reasons why Congress finds itself hamstrung in Washington and discounted by the people it serves at home. These include long-term trends over which it has little control: the political polarization of the country; the oceans of money that get dumped into the political process; the push by successive presidents to amass as much executive power as possible.
But in the end, the demons Congress has to fight are its own. If it is to return to relevance, effectiveness, and higher standing in public opinion, the paths it must follow start on and wind through Capitol Hill.
As I noted a couple of weeks ago, the first step is to act like the co-equal branch of government our Founders intended it to be. But to get there, it needs to rehabilitate how it operates internally.
For starters, Congress has gotten into some terrible legislative habits. The worst is the omnibus bill, which is emblematic of the deeply rooted issues Congress faces. These bills are thousands of pages long and they bypass pretty much the entire legislative process: committee hearings, input by rank-and-file members, vetting and analysis by outside experts and most staff. Instead, they put power in the hands of a few leaders and shunt openness and transparency to the sidelines.
Leaders prefer this because it makes decision-making simpler. But good process is not about efficiency. It’s about bolstering your chances of getting things right. And that means handing authority back to individual members and to the committees so that what comes out of Congress can benefit from the creativity and insights of a wide range of talented politicians.
This step, however, requires another: Congress has to spend more time legislating. Its members work very hard, but not at legislating. They raise money, they listen to well-heeled donors and interest groups, they go on television to score political points, they attend a never-ending whirl of events, dinners, parties, and receptions. They spend only a few days a week tending to legislative business, and even then get long breaks during the year.
Yet if the political and legislative process is a search for remedies to our nation’s problems, then it needs care and attention. Building expertise and finding consensus — even within one’s own party — takes patience, skill, perseverance … and a lot of time.
And honestly, if members of Congress can’t make the time to re-energize the practice of negotiation and compromise, then what hope is there? The country is divided. So is Congress, to a large extent reflecting the divisions in the country. But the definition of being a responsible lawmaker is to deal with these kinds of splits and to move the country forward anyway. Legislators need to accommodate differences and find common ground.
Yes, it’s a challenge to stick to core principles and still make progress through negotiation. But that’s the essence of political skill. Otherwise, each side just sits in its corner and maneuvers to beat the other at the next election and we, as a nation, spin in circles. Our Constitution is a fine example of talented politicians who went at each other hammer and tongs, sought the best compromises they could, and then moved forward. Somehow, they managed to forge a country out of this.
Finally, Congress needs to spend far more of its energy looking over the executive branch. The current hearings on the Mueller report highlight what’s been lacking: this kind of attention should be paid to every nook and cranny of government. Good oversight can repair unresponsive bureaucracies, expose misconduct, and make agencies and their staffers more accountable. It takes time, effort, and expertise, but robust congressional oversight has helped government avoid a lot of failures in the past, and it needs to do so again.
The point of all this is that without a functional Congress, we don’t have a functional representative democracy. I don’t expect all these things I’ve mentioned to be resolved easily or quickly. But I want to see Congress again become an institution we can be confident is playing a constructive role in our democracy. And until it gets its house in order, I don’t see how that will happen.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.