I had the good fortune last week to spend some time in Washington, D.C. with about a dozen former members of Congress. As you’d expect, we got to talking about the current Congress. Very quickly it turned out that the same question was troubling all of us: Why is it held in such low public esteem?
We represented both parties and a variety of eras, and had a range of experience under our belts. But we all found ourselves chagrined by what we’ve been witnessing. You have to understand that most former members of Congress believe deeply in the value of the institution for American representative government. We might take opposite sides of particular policy debates, but on one point we all agree: we want the institution itself to succeed and thrive. These days, it’s doing neither.
For starters, we were hard-pressed to come up with any real accomplishments for this Congress. It did pass a revision to No Child Left Behind, and a controversial expansion of cyber-surveillance capabilities — which it slipped into a must-pass budget bill. It also took the entirely uncontroversial step of broadening sanctions on North Korea. But that’s pretty much it.
In the country at large, people are fretting about control of our borders, stagnant wages, college expenses, the cost of health care, the opioid addiction crisis, the spread of ISIS, the strengthening effects of climate change. The administration is trying to keep the Zika virus from gaining a foothold in this country, and congressional inaction has already caused Puerto Rico to default on one set of obligations, with a much bigger default looming – and doomed airline passengers to longer and longer waits as the TSA struggles. Yet on Capitol Hill, no one seems particularly concerned. Instead, its members left town to campaign.
This may be unfair, but I can’t help but think about my first year in Congress. We enacted 810 bills, including the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Water Quality Act, and setting up the Departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development. Not every year was like that, but the contrast is inescapable. Among the group of people I was with last week — people who watch Congress closely — there was unanimity: this will go out as one of the least productive years in congressional history.
Worse, members show little interest in making Congress more productive. Our little group all remembered times when we or our colleagues pushed reform efforts to make the institution work better — and were struck that current members aren’t doing so. Most Americans belong to some group or another that’s trying to accomplish change for the better and improve itself at the same time. Why would Congress be an outlier? But it is.
Some of the observations we shared last week are old hat. Congress is excessively partisan, with too many of its members highly distrustful of the other party and inclined to blame it for Capitol Hill’s ailments. As an institution, it seems incapable of ridding itself of the bad habits it’s gotten into: the reliance on omnibus bills and continuing resolutions; timidity in the face of presidential power; a marked reluctance to use the levers of congressional authority — especially control of the federal budget — to prod or check executive action.
Yet none of us believe this is irreversible. We are all convinced that strong leadership in Congress could make an immense difference. In the past, effective legislators on both sides of the aisle — as committee chairs and as caucus leaders — have left behind them a legacy of great accomplishment. Democrat Emanuel Celler of New York and Republican William McCullough of Ohio joined forces to craft the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Democrat Wilbur Mills of Arkansas and Republican John Byrnes of Wisconsin together helped shape Medicare.
I won’t waste your time with a list of consummate legislators who were able to get things done. The point is simple: it may be a different time and legislative environment from 50 years ago, but strong leadership can make Congress work. On that, my former colleagues and I, Republicans and Democrats, found ourselves in full agreement.
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.