Congressional Bickering

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Wednesday, April 16, 2003
One of the most common criticisms of Congress is that members spend too much time bickering and arguing, and never seem to get anything done. I must have heard it a hundred times: Why can’t you folks get together? 

Congress is generally perceived as the “broken branch” of government, unable to work together to carry out the nation’s wishes. This is a longstanding complaint. Woodrow Wilson viewed the House as “a disintegrated mass of jarring elements.” Sometimes the language during debates does get a little rough, such as when a member in 1875 described another as “one who is outlawed in his own home from respectable society; whose name is synonymous with falsehood; who is the champion, and has been on all occasions, of fraud; who is the apologist of thieves; who is such a prodigy of vice and meanness that to describe him would sicken imagination and exhaust invective.” These comments make the present partisanship sound rather mild. 

The perception of Congress as paralyzed by its own internal bickering comes up in most discussions of the institution, and it is one that matters. Surveys show it is a major factor in the American public’s lack of confidence in Congress. 

People get upset because they think that most everyone agrees on what’s right and necessary, and they see no good reason for Congress not to implement such a consensus. Yet the truth is that there is far less consensus in the country than often thought. The fact is, it is very difficult to get agreement among a broad cross-section of Americans on major political issues. Most years there is little agreement on what the main issues are, let alone what specific steps should be taken to address them. The devil– and the dispute– is often in the details. 

Most bills passed by Congress actually receive fairly broad, bipartisan support. Yet dispute and delay often occur because it’s a tough and tedious job making policy for a country of this vast size and remarkable diversity. The issues before Congress are much more numerous than in past years, often very complicated and technical, and intensely debated, with a large number of sophisticated groups knowing that key policies and millions of dollars can hinge on every word or comma. The great variety of our nation’s races, religions, regional interests, and political philosophies all bring their often-conflicting views to Congress. It’s the job of the House and Senate to give the various sides a chance to be heard and to search for a broadly acceptable consensus. 

There is bound to be bickering when you bring together 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, all duly elected to Congress– all of whom feel strongly about issues and want to push their views and represent the best interests of their constituents. People shouldn’t fall off their chairs because they see heated debate; that’s how we thrash things out in a democratic society. 

Much of what the public dislikes– the spirited, often intense, debate– is part of the process. That’s the way legislatures work. We could have chosen to have all decisions made by a single ruler at the top, but that’s not the kind of government we wanted. Congress was set up as the forum in which strongly-held differences would be aired; conflict is built into the system. Allowing all sides a chance to be heard on the most difficult issues facing our nation almost ensures that the debate will at times be contentious, but it also helps to keep our country from coming apart at the seams. 

Dispute is different from dysfunction, and results are what count. Intense debate doesn’t mean that issues cannot be resolved– just that resolving them can be frustrating and time-consuming. I remember many conversations with disgruntled constituents over the years when I urged patience, and suggested that they judge Congress by the final results, not by the bickering they might see during the process. 

I’m not defending strongly partisan or harsh personal attacks. Certainly things can sometimes go too far and get out of hand. And Congress does have various means for handling such cases– the member in 1875 was in fact formally censured by the House for his remarks. But overall, people should expect some bickering and arguing within Congress. A democracy without conflict is not a democracy. 

(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.)