Lee Hamilton: Congress must change the way it goes about its business

Acouple 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. They were simply reflecting a broad public consensus that things are not working well on Capitol Hill. And they were right. 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 seems to have lost the ability to legislate. It’s too polarized and partisan. It’s dominated by political game-playing, and by the undue influence of money.

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In fact, there’s a lot it can’t get done: It can’t repair or replace Obamacare; it can’t take action on climate change; it can’t find its way to the grand bargain on fiscal reform that everyone wants; it can’t develop an education policy; it’s unable to address our cyber-security needs, strengthen gun laws or mitigate economic inequality.

There are things that members of Congress do pretty well. They serve their constituents and dutifully reflect constituents’ views. Most are accessible and understand what their constituents want. They’re adept at aligning themselves with their home districts or states and equally skilled at separating themselves from Congress as a whole. They know how to make themselves look good and the institution they serve look bad.

Most members are people of integrity and talent who want to advance the national interest as they understand it. They’re willing to work exhausting hours in an agitated, dysfunctional political environment. It’s frustrating to look at Congress and see so many talented, well-meaning people who struggle to make the institution work well.

So what should they do? What are the paths that will lead Congress back to relevance, effectiveness and higher standing in public opinion? 

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First, Congress needs to step up to its constitutional responsibilities. The Founders placed Congress first in the Constitution for a reason; it’s not just a co-equal branch, 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.

The Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to declare war, yet military intervention is now the president’s choice. Congress is supposed to take the initiative in producing a budget, but it’s been many years since it exercised that power. Instead, the president submits a budget and Congress reacts.

Up and down the line, the president sets the agenda and then Congress responds to his proposals. It’s pretty hard to identify a congressional initiative within recent memory.

And Congress doesn’t defer only to the president. Congress leaves regulatory decisions to federal agencies, with very little oversight. It yields economic power to the Federal Reserve. It has allowed the Supreme Court to become a central policymaking body on issues from campaign finance to affirmative action to environmental regulation.

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And though recent stirrings of independence among both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are heartening, they’re just that – stirrings. Congress hasn’t come close to being a co-equal branch of government for a long time. So the first step toward reforming itself will be to resolve to become an equal partner in governing.

To do so, however, Congress 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.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.