Freedom Award Acceptance Remarks

The Hon. Lee H. Hamilton
U.S. Capitol Historical Society
Nov 4 2005

Good evening. It is my distinct privilege to accept the Freedom Award from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. I am particularly honored to receive an award that focuses on the role of the Congress in defending freedom in America.

I hold the U.S. Capitol Historical Society – and Ron and his staff – in high esteem. Your organization performs a vital role in educating and reaching out to the public about the history and role of the Capitol and the Congress in our representative democracy.

If we do not learn our history, we will not know who we are. There is little that is more important for an American to know than the robust American story: the full, truthful, unvarnished account of our successes, our failures, our ideals, our flaws, our progress, and our heroes.

For those of us connected to the Congress and the Capitol, there is little that is more important to know than the history of that magnificent building and the men and women who have passed through there.

As Jefferson said, the U.S. Capitol is a "temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people." By educating all of us about this institution, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society acts as a keeper of the flame for this temple. I salute you for that.

Speaking up for Congress

The brightest wits in American life have had their fun at the expense of Congress. I often think that bashing Congress is one of America's all time favorite indoor sports:

H.L. Mencken said that, "with the right pressure, Congressmen would cheerfully be in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism."

Will Rogers said that, "Congress was a never-ending source of amusement, amazement, and discouragement." Even so, he is honored with that magnificent statue just off the House floor.

When I was in the Congress, I was never bothered by the barbs. What did bother me, though, was the extent to which people do not understand or appreciate the basic role Congress plays in defending freedom within our representative democracy.

I am often struck by how few voices defend the Congress as an institution. Who speaks for the Congress? Indeed, it often appears to me that those closest to the institution take great delight in deprecating it.

So I am pleased that the U.S. Capitol Historical Society does speak up for the Congress, along with many of the people in this room.

This evening, I want to briefly address one question: How does Congress defend freedom?

1. Representative

Above all, Congress defends freedom by being the most representative branch in the United States government. Indeed, without Congress we would have no representative democracy.

There is no freedom without representative democracy, and no representative democracy without freedom.

The Founders knew that people are free only when their cares and concerns are represented in their government.

"We the people" and "consent of the governed" aren't merely phrases to recite on patriotic holidays. They are words we live by. Our system rests squarely on the belief that freedom exists only where one is governed with one's consent, and with a voice in one's government.

Many of the constituents that I met with over several decades did not understand the unique role Congress plays as the representative body in our democracy.

Congress – with all of its faults – is the most representative body in the land. It reflects – however imperfectly – the bigness and diversity of America. It responds – however imperfectly – to the expressed hopes, desires and ambitions of the American people.

Madison himself held that in a representative democracy, "the legislative authority necessarily predominates." The question for the Founders was how to ensure that peoples' views are reflected in government. The answer was the Congress.

Madison and his compatriots wanted to guard against the tyranny of the majority; they wanted to guarantee the rights of the minority and ensure that the passions of the moment were cooled in deliberate debate. The answer was the Congress.

They were concerned that Executive power be checked, that there not be an American king. The answer was the Congress.

So they opted for a system where people carry their voices to Washington through the Congress. That is why they gave the Congress, in Article I of the Constitution, the longest and most detailed part of the Constitution, the power to pass laws, levy taxes, raise armies, and regulate commerce. They made Congress the principal arm of the government. That is why they made Congress accountable to the people.

In short, that is why Congress is the "First Branch" of the government.

You and I know well the words painted prominently above the entrance to the House: Alexander Hamilton's statement, "Here, sir, the people govern."

You and I also know well enough that Congress may not always do justice to the vision that the Founders had for it. It is far from perfect. But it is a necessary – indeed, the essential institution in a representative democracy.

The grand historic purpose of the Congress – the purpose enshrined in the words of Madison, Hamilton, and others – is not to pass a budget or any other piece of legislation; it is to guarantee our freedom.

2. Accessibility

Congress defends freedom by being the most accessible branch of government.

An unhappy voter with a real or perceived grievance cannot call the President or the Vice-President or the cabinet Secretary or even the Deputy Secretary. That voter can call and get a response from a Congressman or Senator. When was the last time you saw the Secretary of Defense at a community dinner?

I am aware of the polls that consistently show that 60% of the public thinks elected officials are not responsive. But I also know the extraordinary efforts made by members of Congress to stay in touch.

And it's not easy. Today, 435 Members of the House represent districts with an average of 650,000 constituents – some with vast areas. Members travel home for long weekends; host call-in shows; go to forums and festivals; host "virtual town meetings" on the Internet; keep ample room on their schedules for constituent meetings; and direct staff to answer the myriad of letters, phone calls, faxes and e-mails that come in every day.

The truth is that Congress is by far the most accessible branch of government. As difficult as it is to keep in touch, it is not a burden: Congress can only defend freedom if it is accessible to citizens.

3. Independence

Congress defends freedom by being an independent branch of government.

Presidents are served by powerful aides, all of whom serve at his pleasure. It is the rare aide who can and will say: "Mr. President, you're wrong." Or, as George Reedy put it, in the White House no one says: "Mr. President, go soak your head."

Members of Congress do not depend on the President for their office. They are independent – free to give him independent advice. For a President, that advice – if used skillfully – can be a tremendous asset.

One time I was traveling with President Clinton in China. At a stop outside of Beijing it fell to me, in a moment's notice, to explain the American system of government to a large group of Chinese students. I did my best, but I'm not sure I explained it as well as I should have. Looking back, I realize what a golden opportunity it was – to explain what American government is all about to a totally foreign culture.

What is it all about?

I think the key is balance. And balance depends on a strong and independent Congress – not a Congress that is a servant or rubber stamp for the President.

In our system Congress should check his power. It should force him to speak to a body made up of diverse interests representing the American people that is – in many respects – closer to them than he is.

Indeed, the Founders gave more powers to the Congress precisely because they feared that an all-powerful president would repeat the mistakes of the King. Thus they gave Congress a degree of independence from the Executive that is rare among the world's democracies.

Some people complain about Congress "getting in the way," but I remind them that Congress can only defend freedom if it is an independent legislature. And I quote one of my favorite remarks about the relationship between Congress and the President, from former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn: "I served with, not under, eight presidents."

4. Process

Congress also defends freedom through good legislative process.

People often complain about a do-nothing Congress. At a time when the world moves at light-speed, Congress often seems stuck in another century and follows arcane procedures.

The charges abound: Gridlock! Foot-dragging! Obstructionist! People don't appreciate the layered budget, authorization and appropriation processes. People deplore filibusters. People don't understand why it can take years for important bills to wind through Committees, floor consideration, and conferences.

You and I know that these roadblocks are built into the system for a reason. Our country is big and complicated. We've got a lot of differences – regional, ethnic, and economic. Issues like taxes, health care, abortion or guns stir strong emotions and don't lend themselves easily to compromise.

You and I can pose the questions:

Do we want a system where laws are pushed through before consensus is reached?

Do we want a system in which minority views are trampled by a majority's rush to action?

Do we want a Congress that is a model of efficiency, or a Congress where diverse opinions are considered and consensus prized?

The very essence of the Congress is deliberation. Congress is – or at least should be – a deliberative body.

Most Americans may be familiar with the diagram of how a bill becomes a law. Whenever I see those charts I think to myself how sterile they are. They do not convey the dynamics – the frustration, the excitement, the complexity, the necessity of the complex process. And it is necessary. For deliberative lawmaking is what makes us a democracy.

The most maddening things about Congress are also its greatest qualities. People may sometimes complain about the process, but they benefit from its legislative speed bumps when they want their views heard, their interests protected, and their rights safeguarded.

For in the end, democracy is a deliberative process – not a product. And Congress can only defend freedom if it respects that process.

Conclusion

Freedom has been bequeathed to us. But we did not earn it, nor is it merely a gift. With each generation, our country makes a simple deal with each of its citizens: with liberty comes duty, with freedom come obligation. The business of freedom is always unfinished. It is not, and never will be, a final achievement.

So in our democracy, the obligation of Congress to defend freedom is a never-ending effort. Congress can only meet its mandate to assure freedom if it:

faithfully and fully represents the people;

remains accessible to all the people and not simply the powerful;

retains its status as a co-equal independent branch of government;

and puts into practice a fair and deliberative legislative process that guarantees that all voices are heard.

To defend freedom, members of Congress must stick up for the importance and independence of the institution itself, and we must prod and assist them in doing it.

Indeed, members of Congress take an oath on the matter of defending freedom. When members are sworn in, they vow to support and defend not the President or a political party, but the Constitution, a document that says – right up at the top: "all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested" in Congress.

That is how the Founders intended it to be – the peoples' branch of government, defending the peoples' freedom.

All of us who cherish and serve this institution must remember the words of the ballad: "I've got the light of freedom. I'm going to let it shine."