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 are people of integrity who want to serve their constituents and the country. They also strive to reflect their constituents’ views, though they 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.
Yet for all the attractive individual qualities that members of Congress display, their institutional performance falls short. They argue endlessly, pander to contributors and powerful interests, posture both in the media and in countless public meetings, and in the end it amounts to very little. They discuss and debate a lot of problems, but don’t produce 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 law. 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.
Perhaps because they’re 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.
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.