by Lee Hamilton
Why Congress is less than the sum of its parts
With an unexpectedly productive lame-duck session behind it and a new majority taking charge of the U.S. House, Capitol Hill is an energetic place at the moment. The question on everyone’s mind — and not just in Washington — is whether this energy will amount to anything.
Given the trumpet blasts of resolve coming from leaders at both ends of the Capitol, you’d expect plenty of action. Yet if you ask ordinary Americans about what they hope for from legislators, you’ll mostly get cynicism. In their view, Congress is irredeemably broken or, at best, mis-functioning.
It’s tempting to write off the problem as rooted in weak-kneed or overweening politicians — or a toxic mix of both. They exist, but they’re not really the issue. Members of Congress do not lack dedication or motivation to do well; they are not inept or so blinded by power that they would sacrifice the nation’s well-being on the altar of personal advancement. Most are able politicians, strongly committed legislators, and among the hardest-working people this country produces.
The problem is not members of Congress themselves; it’s that Congress amounts to less than the sum of its parts. I’ve often wondered why this is the case, and have a few thoughts on why it might be so.
You could certainly argue that the challenges lie in the nature of Congress itself. Its members might be talented individually, but they represent widely different districts, come to the job with vastly differing perspectives, and must respond to a bewildering array of pressures. Just sorting through the regional, ideological, and political differences they confront is hard enough.
Then there are the structural issues that block effective governance, from the gradual decline of true conference committees and the appropriations process to the runaway use of the Senate’s filibuster rule: In the ’73-’74 session of Congress (preceding the last major effort to reform the filibuster), there were 44 filibusters; in this last Congress there were 135. These are not unfixable problems, though a move in the Senate to disarm the filibuster recently fell short, and advocates of reform had to settle for more incremental but positive changes.
In truth, Congress’ most difficult problems are almost cultural in nature. Too many activities distract legislators from the serious business of legislating.
Congressional formalities, legislating on trivial matters (such as naming a post office), and speech-giving across the country might have some value, but they dramatically reduce the time spent on serious legislating.
The most obvious of these is money — not just its influence on political decision-making, but its effect on how members of Congress spend their time. The pressure to raise money is constant; Capitol Hill and its precincts are awash in fundraisers most evenings, and members spend an unseemly portion of their time away from legislating in order to work the phones or attend fundraising events at home. The equation is simple: time spent raising money is time not spent attending to the people’s business.
When members do turn to legislating, what is often topmost on their mind is how to gain political advantage over the opposition, not finding remedies to the issues besetting us. The rise of political consultants to positions of influence not just on Congress-members’ campaigns, but on their full-time staffs, has often led members to adopt the short-term perspective that comes from paying attention to daily polls and tactical positioning, not the longer-term outlook that grows from deliberation and discussion and that leads to crafting real solutions to our serious long-term challenges.
This trend has been abetted, even encouraged, by the unrelenting demands of the news media, whose practitioners seek comments from members from early morning to late at night, force members to take positions quickly, excoriate them for reconsidering or compromising, and in too many cases today serve more as advocates than as educators.
Finally, Congress suffers from its own members’ disrespect. An entire generation won office by running against the institution, building their political careers on criticizing it and deriding other members — something many of them continue to do while in office. They become so captivated by criticizing Congress and the actions of their colleagues — and benefit politically so much for doing so — that they lose focus on passing legislation for the benefit of the country.
Coupled with the partisanship that has made members and their staffs such fierce antagonists, all of this makes working together to craft broadly acceptable legislation and to buttress the institution itself much more difficult.
I don’t want to suggest that Congress is dysfunctional. December’s lame-duck session proved that it is not. But for today’s energetic determination to turn into tomorrow’s clear-eyed accomplishments, the denizens of Capitol Hill will need to look beyond procedural and structural change, and start addressing their own habits, assumptions, and culture. We all want to see a Congress that equals, if not exceeds, the sum of its talented members. CV
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.