Why Congress Must Learn To Look Ahead

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Wednesday, July 14, 2004
As the nation takes stock of what we can learn from the September 11 terrorist attacks, much attention is going to the short-sightedness revealed within federal intelligence agencies and executive-branch circles. There is another branch of government, though, whose failings ought to alarm us as well: Congress. 

It may seem odd to say this. Is it really Congress’s job to protect American soil from attack? The answer, of course, is no, not directly. But it is Congress’s job to make sure that the federal government as a whole is on top of its game, alert to the perils that face us as a nation and prepared to respond appropriately. Yet in the years just before the 9/11 attacks, even though members of Congress knew that terrorism was a threat to U.S. interests, hearings to look into the matter were modest and episodic. When intelligence briefings took place to discuss the dangers, they were sparsely attended. For whatever reason, and despite some individual exceptions, Congress simply did not anticipate 9/11. Congress, too, was caught unprepared. 

The fact is, Congress is not very good at looking ahead. It falls particularly short when it comes to identifying issues that, left unattended, might some day rear up and bite us. Over the last few years, for instance, Congress has essentially ignored a growing income inequality in this country that has concentrated an astounding percentage of private wealth in fewer and fewer hands; not only has it failed to examine its own role in creating this situation, it has shown no interest at all in the political and economic repercussions should most Americans come to decide that the system is stacked against them. Nor has it spent much time considering the many implications of our country’s aging population beyond tangling periodically with the politically tendentious subject of Social Security. Insufficient attention has also been given over the years to our need for energy independence or to the large number of children in America living in poverty. Similarly, there is a long list of troubles besetting large portions of the world, from scant supplies of clean water to the rise of vast urban slums in Africa and Latin America to the spread of epidemic diseases, that are breeding instability and could in any number of ways come to have a significant impact on life in the United States. Congress, however, seems largely uninterested.

Why would this be? For one thing, there’s not much immediate political benefit to examining the far horizon for approaching storms. Members of Congress are quite attuned to the immediate concerns of their constituents; anyone who spent too much of his time investigating hunger in Africa would no doubt hear about it at the next round of town hall meetings. Then, too, the close partisan divide within the country as a whole has made it difficult for Congress to move forward even on the issues it does address. The result is that members are under great pressure to focus on issues that have immediate resonance with voters- “partial-birth” abortions, say, or a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution- that might give their side some advantage at the polls. There is much truth in the observation that Congress cannot look beyond the next election. This is one of the fundamental weaknesses of the institution. 

When it comes to foreign affairs, the temptation in Congress is to focus on the burning issues of the moment- these days, the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism- rather than on smoldering concerns that haven’t yet burst into flame. This is understandable, but it is dangerous for a superpower; as we saw on September 11, it means we are unprepared when things suddenly go awry. The conflicts of all kinds and descriptions around the globe; hunger; disease; environmental degradation; water shortages; the hopelessness of so many people- these may not impinge right now on the daily life of Americans, but no wise world power would ignore them. 

In essence, the world has become a complex, troubled and precarious place- so much so that as a nation, we can ill afford to have an entire branch of government wrapped up in short-term political thinking. As Thomas Jefferson put it, we need to lengthen our horizon to how our actions would affect the “thousandth generation.” How can Congress move in the right direction, then, when the immediate political rewards seem so tenuous? 

The answer, it seems to me, is for its members to re-assert their institutional prerogatives as a branch of government that is equal in power and in responsibility to the executive branch. Over the last few decades, Congress has grown increasingly accustomed to thinking of itself as an adjunct to the President, reduced in stature by its desire to help him when it is controlled by members of the same party, and by its determination to jab at him when it is not. At a time when events with long-visible roots can spin out of control with appalling swiftness, however, the interests of our nation demand a different estimation of what Congress is about. It needs to be a partner with the executive branch in deliberately exploring the stresses within our own country and in the world around us, so that we can understand their causes, evaluate their possible consequences, explore policies that might defuse them, and take a cold, hard look at how we might deal with the results should those policies fail. 

(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.)