Why Can't Congress Act?

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Monday, July 10, 2000
A common criticism of Congress is that Members spend too much time bickering and arguing. As a 34-year Member of Congress, 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. And this is a longstanding complaint. Woodrow Wilson viewed the House as "a disintegrated mass of jarring elements." 

This 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. So this is a criticism that goes to the very heart of confidence in our system of government. 

Why is it so difficult for Congress to reach agreement? 

The quick answer is: politics. This year, for example, with the list of Congress' legislative accomplishment relatively modest, we're hearing a lot about how election-year politics is stalling work in Washington, as each party hopes to win advantage in November. Others point to the poisoned post-impeachment atmosphere in Congress, the decline in civility in recent years and the desire to always seek partisan advantage, the mixed political signals sent by the voters, and the way power is evenly divided between the two parties today. 

But there is much more to it than that. 

People 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 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 current major political issues. 

Survey after survey shows that Americans don't even agree on the most important issues facing the country, let alone the best way to solve them. Congress was able to act forcefully, for instance, in the 1960s to pass a series of major civil rights bills and to set up programs like Head Start, Medicare, and Medicaid to help the least well off in society, in response to the broad consensus that existed in the country. But today when people are asked to identify the most important problem, their responses are all over the lot, with the most frequently named issue being mentioned by less than 10% of the people. 

Also, the issues facing Congress are very tough ones, and reasonable people may differ on them. Should we build the missile defense system? How do we fight crime and drugs? Should we limit imports coming into the country? Can we devise a way to provide health care to all who are uninsured? All these are tough substantively. 

Public agreement is often only about the objective, not on how to achieve the objective. And the devil is frequently in the details. For instance, while opinion polls indicate widespread interest in curbing the influence of big-money interests in politics, it is very difficult to devise a campaign finance system that does that while also protecting free-speech rights. 

People often don't acknowledge disagreement and tend to think there is more agreement than there really is because they tend to associate with people like themselves. And even with their friends, they avoid talking about sensitive subjects — such as abortion or guns — on which they disagree. 

But in Congress that's not an option. The task of Congress is to take up the toughest issues — not just one, but scores of them — and to resolve the clash of values, interests, and claims. Congress was specifically set up to allow all sides a chance to be heard as our diverse society tries to reach agreement on a long list of difficult issues. 

The practical difficulties of forging consensus in a our multifaceted nation are formidable. We must acknowledge that there is no broad agreement on many, if not most, public policy issues facing America. This lack of agreement makes the job of Congress much tougher, yet all the more important. Because while developing consensus is arduous, even exasperating, that is the only way to produce policies that reflect the varied perspectives of our citizenry, enabling us to live together peacefully and productively. 

(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.)