How to Understand Congress

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Wednesday, April 9, 2008
A paradox comes into sharp relief each election year around this time: Americans in general look down on Congress, but tend to like their own representatives. Most years, in fact, some 98 percent of incumbents running again get re–elected. So why is it that we like the people who inhabit the institution when they're back home in the district, but have little patience for them when they're doing what we elected them to do? 

I don't have a complete answer to this conundrum, but I do have a suggestion. Understanding the institution might help explain why it behaves the way it does — and why people you vote for act as they do when they get to Washington. 

The first thing to remember about Congress is that it is a highly representative body. This may seem like a cliché, but think for a moment what it means to fulfill the Founders' intention that the people's voices be heard in the halls of government. It means that farmers in Iowa and ranchers in Montana, laborers in Boston, shrimping families in Louisiana, hotel maids in Los Angeles, doctors and lawyers in Minnesota and Georgia — all these and millions of others have someone in Congress who can speak for them. The full diversity of this country's beliefs, concerns, and desires gets funneled to Capitol Hill. 

This makes arriving at a political consensus supremely difficult — yet it also guarantees our freedom. It means that, at least in the ideal, Congress acts with the authority that comes from representing the American people. 

Congress is also our most accessible branch. You cannot call a Supreme Court justice or secretary of defense to complain about U.S. policy or lodge a grievance. Yet you'll get a response from your congressman or senator. And legislators spend much of each week striving to stay in touch with their districts or states: traveling home for long weekends; hosting call–in shows; meeting both in Washington and at home with their constituents. They know what the people they represent are thinking. 

You wouldn't want to change either of these characteristics, but when you combine them with a third — the fact that Congress is designed to be a deliberative body — you can understand why the institution often seems to drag its feet. 

We've got a lot of differences in this country — regional, ethnic, and economic — and issues like taxes, health care, or guns don't lend themselves easily to compromise. People often complain about the process, but do we really want a system where laws are pushed through before consensus is reached? Or that lacks legislative speed bumps to ensure that multiple views get heard and Americans' rights are safeguarded? This is why Congress usually deals with issues incrementally rather than resolving them all at once. Its members have to practice the art of deliberation. 

This is especially so because Congress is an extraordinarily political body. I mean this in both the unattractive and the appealing aspects of “political." 

On the one hand, its members often sway too readily with the currents of public opinion; pay too close attention to the desires of donors; and support or derail legislation for reasons that have little to do with its merits, and much to do with politics. Yet politics as practiced in Congress also entails working hard to understand the concerns of myriad people and interests, bridging differences with an eye toward finding common ground, and building a consensus about how to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. 

This is why it's so important that Congress fulfill its constitutional mandate as an independent and coequal branch of government — because it plays a role that the executive doesn't and the courts aren't supposed to. It is the only institution in our federal government charged with listening to the American people, sorting through our needs and interests, and applying both what it hears and its members' own views to the issues of the day. 

It is an indispensable check on the power of the presidency, and by virtue of its procedures and legislative hurdles, it is a check on the power of runaway majorities and the passions of the moment. That is exactly what the Founders envisioned. 

I don't mean in any way to whitewash the problems that burden Congress at the moment — from the power of moneyed interests to the excessive partisanship. Yet in the end, our Founders understood that the fundamental purpose of the Congress is to help maintain freedom in the land, and to search for a remedy for the challenges confronting the country. That is what Congress is about. If you understand this, then you understand that the messiness we find so frustrating about Congress may be what it has to go through to deliver on its promise. 

(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.)