I’ve noticed a recurring question as I talk to people about Congress. What can be done, they wonder, to get Congress back on track? Is our national legislature capable of serious policy making? At a time when polls say that jobs and the economy are Americans’ chief concern, Congress has not passed a single piece of economic legislation. Instead, it’s focused on investigations. It’s an institution with very little to show for its efforts.
There’s a reason for this. Few legislators know how to make it work any more — respect the legislative process and know it intimately, have mastered the substantive and procedural details, and have the political savvy and skill to move a bill to enactment.
How can Congress improve? A few procedural fixes might help, but the real answer is actually pretty simple: change the way members of Congress work.
First, they need to put in more time legislating on the major challenges facing the country. Only twice this year has Congress been in session for four weeks straight. Its members spend too much of each week at home campaigning and meeting with constituents, and don’t use their limited time in Washington well: much of it goes to meeting lobbyists, legislating on minor if not trivial matters, making the rounds of receptions, and raising funds.
Members have few occasions to get to know one another except in the confrontational settings of committee rooms and the floor of their chamber, and as a result they don’t know how to work together. Just as dispiriting, they know even less about what we sent them there to do: crafting and enacting legislation. It takes skill and perseverance to create meaningful policies that forge common ground among competing interests and ideologies. The time-consuming, difficult work of legislating on complex issues is becoming a lost art.
To begin restoring it, members have to remember that they are a separate, co-equal branch of government. They’ve allowed Congress to become a reactive body. It takes its cues from the president — either in deference to him or in opposition to him, but always with reference to him. Capitol Hill should be an engine of creative policy-making and inquiry, not the place that dynamic lawmaking withers.
This can’t happen, however, if members of Congress continue putting politics ahead of policy making. Many of the bills passed today in one chamber or the other are not even taken up by the other body. They are posturing, not legislating.
I’m not naive. Politics is always going to be important, but it ought not dominate lawmakers’ actions. They can be politicians at election time, but once they reach Capitol Hill our Constitution expects them to be policy makers and legislators. So do ordinary Americans. The partisan maneuvering, the compulsion to send a message rather than legislate, and the lack of solid accomplishment have driven Americans’ disdain for Congress to record highs.
If lawmakers want to reverse this, they need to re-order their priorities. They’ll rein in their partisan instincts. They’ll spend less time asking for money — often from the people affected by the bills they’re voting on — and more on building friendships and relationships among colleagues, especially of the opposite party, who can help them enact legislation. They’ll ignore trivial bills that give the appearance of action but accomplish little, and learn how to do rigorous oversight, with truth-seeking hearings that are fair and balanced.
They’ll master the legislative process, rather than delegating bill-writing and even strategy to staff. They’ll send their polite regrets to the invitations that pour in for receptions, dinners, media appearances, and all the other distractions that keep a member of Congress busy, and bear down on the work their constituents sent them to pursue: crafting legislation, debating bills, deliberating with their colleagues, and reaching consensus on the serious problems confronting the country.
Here’s the most important part: they don’t need legislation or constitutional amendments or procedural fixes or even years of seniority to start. They just need to go to work and make the Congress and our representative democracy effective at serving the best interests of the country.
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.