In one of the US Capitol hallways that House members pass through regularly to get to the chambers, there’s an inscription of a comment by Alexander Hamilton. It comes from his 1788 remarks to the New York convention on ratifying the Constitution, and reads simply, “Here, Sir, the people govern.”
I’ve always thought that was a pretty good summation of what Congress represents: it is a repository of the thoughts and will of the American people. And my impression is that a lot of Americans think highly of that idea, too. I’ve held a lot of public meetings over the years, and even in recent times, when Congress’s public standing has been low, people often speak approvingly of the history of the institution itself; they’re disappointed in how Congress performs, not in its role within our system. In all that time, I can’t ever remember anyone saying we’d be better off without it.
My experience in the House bore that belief out. Though there were always flaws, the process the House followed was focused on deliberation, debate, discussion… and then choosing a solution based more often than not on a rough consensus of its members. Even if I didn’t agree with the results, I’d often listen to the debates and think, “I like the way this institution works.”
I still remember the time that Wilbur Mills, the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, came before the Democratic caucus to talk about the upcoming vote on establishing Medicare. I was a new, young representative, and when Mills told us that we easily had enough votes to ram the measure through over Republican objections, I and many others thought we should do exactly that. Mills, however, did not. He asked us to give him an opportunity to negotiate with Republicans and find ground that both sides could agree on, so that the bill could win support on both sides of the aisle. And that is exactly what he did.
Mills knew something that often gets forgotten these days, which is that the more broadly a piece of legislation reflects the American people, the greater its acceptability, effectiveness, and staying power. If you’re in Congress, you’re reminded pretty much every day that giving a say to this diverse country is a choice. The body is made up of members who fiercely advocate for their views through speeches, contacts of all kinds and descriptions, public appearances, and trying to win the media over to their side. And the whole institution is a focal point for competing interests weighing in on difficult problems. It is a real cauldron.
All of these beliefs are represented in the Congress, and the legislative process is a key part of how the country works through that cacophony of competing interests. Debate, deliberation, calculation, compromise — it’s an inefficient process that, for difficult issues, can go on for a long time. But over the course of our history, it’s been reasonably productive.
This is why those of us who value the institution of the Congress — who actually believe in Hamilton’s words — have lamented the trend of recent decades ceding power to the presidency. The Constitution is explicit: legislative power is vested in Congress. But if that power is not protected or goes unused, it does not merely evaporate; in our system, it flows to the presidency or the judiciary. And in doing so, it passes out of the hands of the body that most closely represents the American people.
When President Trump talks of the presidency as if there were no check on it, as if, as president, he is beyond the reach of the law or of Congress, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle rightly disagree. Sometimes they serve effectively as a check, sometimes not. Sometimes partisanship gets the better of them. But for better or worse, Congress remains the spot where the cross-currents of American popular opinion have their best chance of being heard, listened to, and acted upon. That’s one power members should never give up.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.