In Congress, Change Is A Constant

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Congress may not seem to change much from year to year, but in fact it is an evolving institution, and not always for the better, says former Congressman Lee Hamilton."

We think of Congress as immutable, a steadfast presence in American life since its first session in 1789. The inspiration we draw from the dome of the Capitol, the pull of a congressional hearing we know will change the course of history, the lofty statements on the floor of the House or Senate — these were as much a part of our grandparents' time as they are of ours. 

Yet after watching Congress carefully for nearly 45 years, I am struck as much by how it has changed as by how much has endured. In everything from where power lies and how it is wielded, to the procedures for running the institution, to how members like to operate, the Congress today is a different body from the one I joined in 1965. 

The most significant change has been its steady yielding of power to the White House. Our democracy was built on the core notion that the Congress, the President, and the judiciary would serve to check and balance one another. Yet there is no question today where the national agenda — from budget-making to the use of force — gets set. In deferring so often to the President, I believe, Congress has become a much less powerful actor in the American system of government than the founders intended and a well-functioning representative democracy requires. 

Power within Congress has shifted, too. The leadership — especially the majority leadership in both houses — has consolidated its hold on the institution with ever larger staffs and budgets, making it harder for other voices to be heard. Not coincidentally, the influence of campaign money, and therefore of those who raise it and those who determine where it will be spent, has taken on vastly greater importance than it held four decades ago. So, too, has the presence and influence of lobbyists, leading many Americans to feel that they have no real voice in the policy-making process. 

Even so, Americans' relationship with Congress has changed in many ways for the better. Though the average member of Congress represents about 200,000 more people today than he or she did in the 1960s, Congress today better reflects the diversity of America. It includes more women, more members of racial and ethnic minorities, more people with different backgrounds. Congress is also a more open institution: Its proceedings are televised, its votes are widely published, its activities — especially in this day of instant communications — more readily scrutinized. 

Still, this openness has its drawbacks. Televising congressional hearings and debate has led to more grandstanding and greater use of celebrities by advocacy groups hoping to draw attention, diminishing the quality of deliberation and most likely contributing to a rise in partisanship as members play to their political bases. 

There are other dynamics at work, such as the declining competitiveness of congressional districts, work schedules that provide members fewer opportunities to get to know one another, and the overall weakening of the political center in the U.S., but the results are striking to someone who knew Congress four decades ago: It is more open, but also less civil, less friendly, and more intensely political now. 

It is also more pressured. Congress confronts issues of a complexity that was unimaginable a few decades ago: global warming, terrorism, cyberwarfare, the spread of nuclear weapons, a vastly more complex and interwoven global economy. It must also respond to an electorate and a set of special interests that see much more at stake in its actions than they did when I arrived and are skillful at pressing those interests on legislators. 

Where the general attitude toward Washington once was "get off my back," now there is intense pressure on Congress to "get government on my side," whether through tax breaks, subsidies, or regulatory favoritism. 

So it's hardly surprising that Congress now operates differently, short-circuiting the "regular order," relying on omnibus funding bills, and compressing the work week as leaders seek to control the outcome and avoid drawn-out debate. This has fed a drop in deliberation and in the quality of congressional debate, creating a more frenetic, less thoughtful and systematic body. To be sure, individual members can still lead their colleagues on both sides of the aisle through a thorough consideration of one issue or another, but those instances stand out as exceptions now, not the rule. 

In other words, Congress may still be our indispensable institution, the place that makes this country a representative democracy, but it also an institution that continues to evolve, in ways both good and bad. It is under great stress at a time of national need. The challenge is to make it work better. Our representative democracy depends on it. 

(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.)