Judging Congress by the Results

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Monday, December 6, 1999
One morning this past fall, Members of Congress saw a most unflattering front-page article about themselves in the Washington Post. The article called the 106th Congress "utterly dysfunctional", hamstrung by "a surplus of partisan posturing, a deficit of bipartisan achievement." It said fears were widespread that continued standoff between the parties could bring a budget "train wreck" - another government shutdown like the one in the winter of 1995-96. 

The "train wreck," of course, never happened. Instead of drawing a line in the sand on government spending, Republican leaders of Congress spent the fall negotiating with Democrats on Capitol Hill and at the White House. As talks proceeded, Congress passed and President Clinton signed a series of short-term funding measures to keep the government running. In November they reached a compromise, and enacted a budget that both parties declared acceptable. 

But this didn't happen until after a little-noticed turning point earlier that month. Budget talks between the President and Republicans on Capitol Hill had reached an especially contentious stage. The possibility of a partisan standoff loomed. Then, unexpectedly, Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House, extended an olive branch to President Clinton: He announced he would accept the President's invitation to meet and discuss their competing plans for boosting economically struggling regions. "The American people need to see that even though we're having the battle over the budget, there are also things we can work together on," the Speaker told reporters. "At least it's a softening of the partisanship people hear about all the time." 

What was important about Mr. Hastert's offer wasn't just that it helped defuse a difficult situation. His comments also made it very clear that the public is having an impact with its insistence that Washington politicians exhibit more cooperation and less partisanship. The American people have been making this demand on Washington with growing resolve over the past few years, as they've grown tired of partisan bickering and government shutdowns, and the message is getting through. 

This is worth remembering as we head into the upcoming election year, and it bears repeating: The American people can have a significant impact on how Congress behaves. Politicians may be tough advocates for strongly held positions, but they do respond when the public demands that they cooperate with opponents to try to resolve differences and reach consensus. If you think back to how recently this Congress was doing its level best to remove the President from office, the turnaround on Capitol Hill was all the more remarkable. 

Another lesson from this past session of Congress is that dispute and dysfunction are two very different things, and that results are what count. The issues that Members of Congress have to deal with are difficult and complex, and because the system was set up to accommodate diverse points of view, disagreement and delay are a natural part of the legislative process. 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 results, not by the untidy process. 

It is entirely possible that Congress will not accomplish a lot in 2000. Both parties see a chance to win control of the White House and Congress in the next election, so they may put off work on big issues, hoping to set their own agenda in 2001. But if it is overly optimistic to anticipate lofty legislative achievements from the second session of the 106th, it is not at all unreasonable to expect of Congress that it work in a civil manner to do the basic business of governing. 

The cynics and the doubters will surely find plenty of evidence over the next year to support their view that Congress is beyond hope. Campaigns will turn negative, and the media will play up differences and conflicts between politicians, stressing their disharmony and overlooking their cooperation. What comes out of Congress in the upcoming session may, in fact, be modest. But recent events have shown that this need not be the norm, that if we expect and demand more civil comportment by our politicians, they have it within them to deliver some pleasant surprises. Even in an election year. 

(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.)