Rebuilding Congress

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008
With their promise of new energy on Capitol Hill, congressional elections are always a time for hope. This year's contests will be especially significant, for Congress is listing and the nation desperately needs it to right itself. No single issue is the problem; it's Congress itself. The people we elect in November to fill the House and Senate chambers next January will need to set about not just doing the people's business, but fixing the institution so that they can do the people's business. 

At some level, Americans understand this. The overwhelmingly negative polling numbers that Congress has been putting up recently may be fed in part by issues such as Iraq and the economy, but more generally they reflect widespread disappointment and scanty confidence in the institutions of government. People are discouraged by the lack of progress they see on the big issues we face as a nation. They're tired of excessive partisanship. And they're especially dismayed by political leaders who seem, for whatever reason, unable or unwilling to lead. 

Congress is under great stress, then — in its internal dealings, its relations with the executive branch, and its legitimacy in the eyes of the American public. It needs renovating. 

Its first charge ought to be to reassert itself as a robust and vigorous institution, comparable in strength and initiative to the President. Our system relies on creative tension between a strong Congress and a strong President for the simple reason that different opinions and approaches, forthrightly stated and creatively resolved, produce the best policy. This is why Congress' willingness to yield war–making authority to the President has not served this country well; issues of life, death and entanglements abroad need thoroughgoing debate, not deference to the President in the name of patriotism. 

Similarly, Congress' penchant over the past several years for letting the President largely set the budget has allowed it to sidestep responsibility for laying out and vetting the basic blueprint of government. 

Congress has of late made some progress on overseeing the executive branch and holding it more accountable for its actions. This is promising, for oversight is the best means of determining whether federal programs are working as intended or whether there's misconduct on the part of bureaucrats and political appointees. 

But Congress needs to get even tougher. Effective oversight is not just a matter of looking at a few programs; it needs to be part and parcel of Congress' activities, especially in the routine reauthorization process that Congress has by and large abandoned. The continuing resolutions and massive “omnibus” spending bills that Congress relies on these days don't offer the chance to probe the nooks and crannies of federal agencies; they allow the executive branch to escape scrutiny, and weaken not just Congress, but the President and the nation. 

This is one reason why a return to what Capitol Hill veterans call “the regular order” is crucial — taking up one appropriations bill at a time, holding hearings that investigate issues carefully, letting the diverse voices represented in Congress be heard, allowing full and fair debate on the most controversial issues, and voting on all of the major issues. The traditional, deliberative process may seem plodding, but it is how Congress assures openness and its own legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Americans — who worry, often rightly, that shortcuts or closed doors hide decisions that wouldn't bear public scrutiny. 

To be sure, even an open process can be hijacked by rank partisanship or by members determined to gum it up for their own purposes. There's no easy answer to this. In part, the solution lies with voters, who need to make clear at the ballot box that they value civility and a willingness to work on behalf of common sense and the common good. 

In part, it lies with thoroughgoing ethics reform: Congress has made a start over the last year, but too many members still fail to understand how their low institutional standing stems from public mistrust. Congress must insist that all of its members reflect credit on the institution, as the basic code of conduct requires. 

In the end, though, perhaps the most important answer lies with a recognition that at this point in our history, with the nation politically divided in the face of fundamental threats to its well–being and its standing in the world, it is the job of the Congress to try to forge consensus and national unity behind solutions to problems. 

It showed it could do so with its recent economic stimulus package, although compared with the very tough decisions still facing our national leadership, cutting taxes was relatively easy. 

Perhaps, in the end, it won't be able to muster a consensus on Iraq or reshaping financial regulation or combating climate change. Even so, the American people expect it to try, and when they go to the polls this November, that hope will go with them. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)