The Way Forward for Congress

There have been encouraging signs on Capitol Hill of late that Congress’s long slide into irrelevance may be slowing.

Agreements on Medicare reimbursements in both houses, and on Iran, No Child Left Behind, Pacific trade and other issues in various committees led last month to a chorus of relieved approval both in Washington and in the press. Less noticed, but equally important, a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center found that Congress worked more during the first quarter of this year than the past few years, and that the amendment process in the Senate is once again functioning as it’s supposed to.

But let’s not go overboard. Major challenges lie immediately ahead, chief among them how Congress handles the budget. Politicians on Capitol Hill are coming more to agreement. Modest bills are being passed. And we have a taste of bipartisanship. If Congress finds that it likes feeling productive, then I’ve got some suggestions for turning these first, tentative steps into full-blown progress.

First, it needs to remember that our founders placed Congress first in the constitutional firmament. It has been far too timid. As has been noted, “Congress today is a reactive body, taking its cues from the President: sometimes in deference to him, sometimes in opposition to him, occasionally in agreement with him — but always in reference to him.” That’s not the definition of a co-equal branch of government.

And it’s not just the President. Congress leaves regulatory decisions to federal agencies with little direction or oversight, hands economic power to the Federal Reserve, and has allowed the Supreme Court to become the central policymaking body on controversial issues from campaign finance to affirmative action to environmental regulation.

Second, Congress needs to return to good process. This is not a panacea, but it enhances the prospect of getting things right.

Returning in both houses to the so-called “regular order” of committee hearings and amendments would do wonders for restoring transparency, encouraging fact-finding, hearing all sides, weighing options, and finding agreement. Congress has adopted some really bad habits on procedure by passing huge bills in secret, bypassing committees, curbing participation of members, and sharply limiting debate and amendments. Calling an end to all of that would boost Capitol Hill’s chances of crafting legislation that represents what’s best for Americans.

And discouraging legislators from tying two unrelated issues together — the tactic that led to the unconscionably long approval process for Attorney General Loretta Lynch — would help policy get made on its merits.

Third, members need to understand that their conduct has a direct impact on Americans’ trust in Congress. Too many have a constricted view of what it means to serve. They understand their responsibility to represent their constituents, but apparently feel little or no responsibility to get legislation enacted into law or to make the country work. They are satisfied with issuing political statements, casting a vote, or passing a bill — but not caring if it can pass the other house and get signed by the President. This approach fails the ultimate test of the legislative process, which is to find remedies to the nation’s challenges.

Members spend too much time raising money, politicking, and legislating on trivial or pointlessly political matters. Too few take the time and effort to master the legislative process or to bear down on the work their constituents sent them to pursue: crafting legislation, debating bills, deliberating with their colleagues and reaching a consensus on the serious problems confronting the country. They don’t need new rules to fix this. They just need to go to work.

Finally, Congress should heed the lesson of these past few months and re-energize its commitment to negotiation and compromise. There’s room in politics for elected leaders who do not back down on their principles, but these politicians can’t be allowed to dominate the process. If they do, the legislative process deadlocks and representative government becomes impossible. Skillful legislators know how to honor their firmly held principles while still finding common ground.

The progress we’ve seen of late on Capitol Hill is proof that these legislators exist. May their ranks increase. 

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

For a photo of Hamilton, click here.

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