A Fresh Start for Congress?

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Thursday, November 11, 2004
The predictions for what lies ahead when Congress reconvenes in January are unsettling. In the wake of an especially divisive presidential campaign, there is a widespread sense in Washington that the bitter partisanship and outright legislative nastiness that marked the past two years on Capitol Hill will only intensify. My hope is that the newly elected Members of Congress come to understand the damage they can do to the Congress if these predictions come true. As the veteran congressional observer Norm Ornstein wrote recently, "The danger of breakdown is growing acute." 

Confronting this possibility, I find myself wistfully looking back. When I served in Congress, there was a certain innocence that marked the first day of a new Congress. Members and their families would fill the floor. You could read both awe and giddiness on the faces of those who were there for the first time, and even among those who'd been around a while you'd find a sneaking hopefulness that the institution would measure up to its responsibilities to the country. A new Congress meant a fresh start, and in particular a feeling of obligation to fulfill the expectations of the voters. 

These days the entire country could use a strong dose of that spirit. Maybe it's too much to expect Congress to set an example in an era when slamming the other guy seems to be the highest political value, but for a moment let's take a deep breath and imagine how it might do so. 

Members would begin by reminding themselves that pleas for civil discourse are not a last-ditch tactic for political losers, but a means of ensuring that people who disagree with the majority can make valued suggestions, and help produce legislation that more nearly reflects the views of all Americans. This is a diverse country, filled with passionately held opinions and deeply divergent interests. The one sure way to see the country split apart is for one group, even a majority, to insist that things be done only their way. It is Congress's job both to reflect the diversity of views and to help find common ground in a way that all involved consider fair and legitimate. It cannot do this if its members refuse to listen to one another, respect each other's status as representatives of a slice of the American people, or acknowledge that in a divided nation, good governance means finding solutions that all can live with. 

This, in turn, means restoring the luster of bipartisanship as a core value. The very notion that representatives of both parties and several points of view might seek to govern together has fallen into disfavor. A former leader on Capitol Hill once said, "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape," a characterization that manages to be coarse and beside the point at the same time. Seeking to govern with a bipartisan spirit is not an admission that one's party might be wrong or an expression of weakness, it's a candid recognition that making the country work, and not splitting it apart, requires cooperation and compromise. Refusing to recognize this might yield short-term legislative triumphs, but over time it undermines Congress's legitimacy as an institution. 

So, too, does the ends-justify-the-means attitude toward legislative process that has become entrenched on Capitol Hill these days. The excuse for violating good democratic process is usually that the party's program must be enacted for the good of the country. Over the past few years, a variety of changes — from reliance on opaque and huge omnibus bills to the short-circuiting of the committee process — have centralized power in the hands of a few and robbed most members of input. What's the cost? Our country's founders recognized that the careful scrutiny of new ideas is the only way that a variety of viewpoints and interests can be heard — they understood, in other words, that the process of deliberating on legislation was essential, not only to uphold Congress's role at the heart of our political system, but also to preserve representative democracy itself. Good process is not a luxury, it is central to the openness, accountability and accessibility that are the essence of representative democracy. 

Finally, it is worth remembering that the Founding Fathers saw a healthy Congress as an irreplaceable counter-weight to the power of a single leader — the President — and, therefore, as a guarantor of American freedom. The historic mission of the U.S. Congress is not to pass a particular piece of legislation (as important as that may be), but to maintain freedom. In recent years, Congress seems to have forgotten this, too, letting slip its constitutional role as a co-equal branch of government. This separate but equal power of the Congress is a crucial part of its reason for being, and not a simple nicety to be sacrificed on the altar of getting the party's platform enacted at any cost to the damage of the institution. 

What I am arguing, in other words, is that for Congress to lead the nation in healing its political wounds, it must remember that it is not a mere venue for the imposition of a particular view, but an irreplaceable cornerstone of American democracy. Members of Congress could give the American people no greater gift at this difficult moment than to act like they understand this. 

(Lee Hamilton was a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years and is now Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.)