The American public has lost patience with Washington. The question is, now what? Congress is unable to do its job. It displays neither competence nor responsibility, lurching from crisis to crisis. Too many of its members reject the notion that accommodation and time-honored procedures allow them to fulfill their responsibilities to the American people. They use their legislative skill to engage in brinksmanship rather than address the country’s fundamental problems. Economic growth? Creating jobs? Putting the federal budget on a sustainable path? Don’t look to Congress.
We do not have to continue down this road, but we do have to tackle a core problem: The political center in Congress has weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, if not near-irrelevance. Part of the answer lies with the electorate: more people have to turn out to vote. The more people who vote, the better the chances to strengthen the political center – that is, moderates and pragmatists. A healthier Congress rests on expanding efforts to convince people to vote, and beating back the barriers to voting. The second solution lies with Congress. Contemplating a government shutdown, one congressman recently explained his stance by saying, “All that really matters is what my district wants.” This is not an uncommon view, but it’s distressingly limited. Our system depends on members who believe it’s also their responsibility to lead and inform voters, who are willing to weigh the national interest as well as parochial concerns and who have confidence in our system to resolve political differences. In other words, we need members of Congress devoted to making the system work, legislators who realize that those who line up on the other side of them feel just as passionately about their positions, respect those differences, and are committed to finding common ground.
We change laws and solve our most difficult issues in this country not by bringing government to a halt, but by fighting out the issues before the voters in an election. At the end of the day, we have to move the country forward – and we need to elect members of Congress who are willing and able to do that.
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.