There aren’t many people who would argue that Congress is working well these days. It’s been 24 years since it passed a comprehensive budget without resorting to omnibus bills. It can’t pass health-care legislation. Its members talk about the desperate need for a new infrastructure bill, but can’t even get one drafted.
It’s unable to produce immigration reform. It’s facing a host of issues on the environment, education, trade, the concentration of wealth and economic power, war powers and our entanglements abroad — and it can’t find common ground or develop a consensus around solutions to any of them.
This goes a long way toward explaining why Congress is held in such low public esteem: it can’t make progress on issues of importance to ordinary citizens.
How did we get here? How did the House and the Senate — which these days can only be called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” with ironic air-quotes —become so frustratingly unproductive?
There’s no single answer, of course. Partisanship and polarization among politicians and the American people as a whole have made honest negotiation and compromise politically fraught. A lot of members simply don’t believe in government, and oppose government action. Many are content to defer to the president.
We have a presidential administration beset by internal problems, vacancies, and cabinet appointees struggling to perform effectively. This at the same time that very few voices in Congress speak up for sustaining its role as a co-equal branch of government — let alone for congressional dynamism and policy leadership.
Of course, it’s hard to be effective when you don’t work very hard at legislating. You can’t explore the complexities of the issues that need addressing, build consensus, or hammer out legislation when you’re so concerned with raising money and pursuing re-election that you put in only a three-day legislative work week.
At its current law-making pace, one pundit noted recently, Congress has “a real chance at being the least productive legislature since the 32nd, from 1851 to 1853.” This is a far cry from the government envisioned by our Founders, who believed that Congress should drive federal action.
In the end, it’s hard to avoid faulting the congressional leadership. To be sure, there are a lot of members who no longer really identify with the body in which they serve. They rhetorically separate themselves from the institution. They identify with their party, or with special interest groups they support, but not with Congress itself. And so they don’t seem to carry any sense of responsibility for its functioning.
But it’s leadership’s task to turn that around. Congress has never been easy to corral, but strong leaders (and I have seen many of them) have always understood that they had to work in the environment they were given. They were able to make Congress work.
There’s a list of procedural and structural reforms that might help — stopping the three-day work week, strengthening committees, following the traditional order, campaign finance reform, and nonpartisan redistricting that would lead to more competitive congressional seats. But really what needs to happen is that the leadership must let the House and Senate — the full House and Senate — work their wills on the major political issues of the day. These days, leaders usually do their utmost to avoid this.
Putting power back in the hands of ordinary members may seem counter-intuitive when just above I suggested that Congress needs strong leaders. It does — just not leaders who manipulate the process to get the results that they themselves, or some faction of their caucuses, want to see.
Rather, we need leaders who enable members of the Congress to vote on the major issues of the day. This means leadership that recognizes that Congress is filled with diverse and often conflicting opinions, and that to represent and serve the American people as intelligently and effectively as possible, members should vote on the clear-cut and specific issues of most concern to Americans.
Instead, too often today the leadership blocks the full House and Senate from working their respective wills on major legislation. This should end.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.