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.