A couple of weeks ago I was speaking to a group of students and decided to start with a point-blank question: Is Congress doing a good job? There were perhaps 100 people in the room, and not a single one raised his or her hand.
So I asked the question a different way: Is Congress nearly or completely dysfunctional? Most hands went up.
These were not experts, of course. But they weren’t wrong, either. Things aren’t working well on Capitol Hill.
I can tick off the problems, and so can you. Congress doesn’t follow good process. It’s too polarized and partisan. It’s dominated by political game-playing and by the undue influence of money. It defers too readily to the president. Its output is low, and it simply cannot pass a budget on time.
In fact, there’s a lot it can’t get done, from repairing or replacing Obamacare to action on climate change.
To be sure, there are things that members of Congress do pretty well. They are superb at serving their constituents and reflecting their views. They’re people of integrity and talent who want to advance the national interest as they understand it. It’s frustrating to see so many talented, well-meaning people who struggle to make the institution work well.
So what should they do? What will lead Congress back to relevance, effectiveness and higher standing in public opinion?
First, it needs to step up to its constitutional responsibilities. The founders placed Congress first in the Constitution for a reason: it’s the branch that most thoroughly represents the will and desires of the American people. Yet over the years Congress has kept ceding power to the president on military intervention, budgeting and a host of other issues.
It doesn’t defer just to the president. Congress leaves regulatory decisions to federal agencies, yields economic power to the Federal Reserve and has allowed the Supreme Court to become a central policy-making body. It hasn’t come close to being a co-equal branch of government for a long time. So the first step toward reforming itself is to determine to become one.
In order to do so, however, it needs to attend to some serious internal housekeeping, from rehabilitating the way it goes about legislating to restoring the bedrock principles of good legislating, including negotiation and compromise. In my next commentary, I’ll address those needs in greater detail.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser 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.