Congress' Self-Correcting Mechanism

Wednesday, April 7, 1999
Not long ago I was asked to give a talk on how Congress has changed since 1965, the year I entered it as a young freshman Member from southern Indiana. As I sat looking through my old speeches, a phrase jumped out at me. Congress, I told my audiences back then, did its work in an “extraordinarily hospitable atmosphere.” Indeed, I liked to say, no matter how spirited the policy debate, “a cocoon of warmth” surrounded us. 

If I suggested anything of the sort today I’d be laughed out of the room. The last few years in Congress have been among the most divisive, partisan and vitriolic since the Civil War. The House, in particular, tore itself apart with the impeachment debate, an exercise that left such a bitter residue on both sides of the aisle that many Americans have a hard time imagining that the institution can ever recover. 

But I’d like to suggest otherwise and offer an example. Think back a few years, to the time of the government shutdown in the winter of 1995-6. Driven by a stark ideological divide between Democrats and the conservative Republican majority, debates during that session were contentious and bitterly uncompromising. Members almost came to blows on a few occasions. As the country watched with increasing disapproval, the congressional leadership shut down much of the federal government for 27 days, a move that sent Congress’ standing with the public through the floor. 

Then something important happened. Just before the traditional summer break in August, Congress turned itself around. In the space of just ten days, Democrats and Republicans came together and passed several major bills-- overhauling the federal welfare program, expanding access to health insurance, increasing the minimum wage, and rewriting safe drinking water legislation. Congress showed very quickly and very clearly that even when it appears ready to sink, it can right itself. Faced with the prospect of returning to their districts not only empty-handed but widely reviled for their obstinate partisanship, Members of Congress rediscovered pragmatism. They sat down together and wrote laws. 

Something similar is happening today. It began with the Republicans’ decision to elect Dennis Hastert Speaker of the House, which signaled their desire to find a less confrontational tack than they had assumed under Newt Gingrich. It continued with the get-together in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a gathering that drew some 200 Members of Congress and their families hoping to get to know one another away from the political pressure cooker. And it’s apparent in the measured, even conciliatory language heard these days from Speaker Hastert and the Democratic leader, Richard Gephardt of Missouri. Constituents are tired of division and blatant partisan calculation, and every time Members of Congress go home, they hear about it. The surprise would be if Members did not pay attention. It is Congress’ own self-correcting mechanism at work. 

I don’t want to overstate the point. The forces that over the years have produced this partisan era—from the rise of personal attack campaigns to the intense pressure on Members’ time to the hard-fought battle for control in each election—are not going to go away. And as we move into more substantive debates-- over the budget, the fate of social security, a patients’ bill of rights-- some vigorous partisanship will no doubt prevail. But much of it will be what might be called “good” partisanship— tough debate over the merits of the issues. That’s the role that partisanship ought to play in a representative government. Some of it may get out of hand, but every signal coming from the leadership on both sides of the aisle suggests that restraint is the order of the day. 

Back in the days of that “warm cocoon,” when I was still learning my way around Congress, I made a mistake on the House floor. I was managing a bill for the Democrats and I forgot a small parliamentary move that would have locked victory in place. William Bray, a prominent Republican who was also from Indiana, came over to me, put his arm on my shoulder, gently pointed out my blunder and showed me how to fix it. And this was on a bill he opposed. That was how Congress worked then. We’re a long way from that atmosphere on Capitol Hill today, but I’d like to think that, as Congress gingerly moves beyond impeachment, its Members are beginning once again to discover how much more they can accomplish by working together. 

(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.)