Congress Does More than Meets the Eye

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Thursday, July 27, 2000
Numerous observers of the current Congress predict that it will be remembered mostly for its long list of unfinished business. "Politics over progress" is how one analyst describes the Washington scene this election year. 

Make a joke about politicians bickering in Washington and a "do-nothing Congress", and audiences will always chuckle and nod in agreement. This response is as old as the Republic, but lately it seems that Americans' historic skepticism toward Congress is evolving into something more sinister - an attitude of cynicism. 

It is true that sometimes Congress doesn't have a stunning record of accomplishment. It usually has a long list of unfinished business. Members themselves are acutely aware of this. Many times throughout the year - during weekends at home or holiday recesses - they appear before constituents and are asked simply: "What have you people in Congress accomplished?" Even leadership-supplied lists of talking-points may not give Members much help in coming up with anything close to a convincing response. 

So, I think it's important to point out two things about Congress. First, it is capable of passing legislation with sweeping impact on the lives of Americans. And second, even when Congress is not producing blockbuster bills, Members are typically working on scores of other, less-publicized matters that sustain and improve the quality of life here and abroad. 

It's remarkable how quickly we forget that Congress has been involved in some big things in recent years. Erasing the federal deficit. Overhauling the welfare and public housing systems. Rewriting telecommunications laws. Increasing the minimum wage. Liberalizing trade laws. Approving billions to improve roads and bridges. You may not like what Congress did on all of these issues, but after debating policy options and gauging public sentiment, it acted. 

If the current Congress passes few landmark bills, is it fair to say that Members have failed to earn their pay? No. Some of their work involves laying the groundwork for future action on very complex matters that may take more than one Congress to resolve. The Clean Air Act and Immigration Reform Act, for instance, took multiple Congresses to complete due to their inherent complexity. 

Other times Congress is grappling with issues on which the parties strongly disagree, and achieving compromise is very difficult. Voters in recent years have stacked the deck against decisive legislative action by choosing a Congress led by one party and a White House occupied by the other. Congress' critics say "politics" is to blame for the deadlock, but look at it another way: Parties in a divided government are laying out their arguments on issues to voters, asking them to deliver a verdict at the polls in November that will help resolve the impasse. That's democracy in action. This process may be slow and frustrating, but democracy is like that sometimes - actually, much of the time. It's a tough job trying to make public policy for our diverse nation, especially in the absence of clear and decisive signals from the voters. 

Reporters tend to make premature judgements midstream and they cover the high-profile issues that provoke conflict in Congress. Less attention is given to the vital work that Congress does in other matters, most notably the annual appropriations process, which funds the wide range of federal functions that touch the lives of every American. This task is not glamorous, and sometimes it takes the pressure of an end-of-session deadline to spur compromise. But ultimately, compromise comes. Most Members, after all, recognize they are legislators and their responsibility is to produce. Even when a Congress doesn't earn a big place in the history books, more is going on in the Congress than is often recognized. 

(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.)