In Congress, Going Big Isn't Always The Answer

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The recent failure by the Senate to advance a climate-change bill reveals a basic truth about life on Capitol Hill. As former Congressman Lee Hamilton says, "In Congress, Going Big Isn't Always The Answer."

The contrast could not have been more striking. Not long after passage of comprehensive financial reform in July, Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Senate would not be taking up a climate-change bill, pretty much dooming hopes of meaningful action this year on reducing carbon emissions. 

In some political circles, the Senate's failure to address the issue is getting lambasted as a symbol of its overall legislative impotence. But before we write off the Senate as a has-been, there's another way to look at it — as the latest instance of the never-ending calculation on Capitol Hill of whether conditions warrant going big or going small. 

As a legislator interested in shaping national policy on any given issue, perhaps the first decision you have to make is whether to approach it in a comprehensive or incremental fashion. In the end, the decision often comes down to a realistic appraisal of what you can actually accomplish. 

In recent years members of Congress have often preferred the grand, omnibus approach — as with this year's health-care and financial reform bills. Big problems require big solutions, the thinking runs, and for a politician it's hard to resist the temptation of getting credit for solving those problems. Especially since big bills command far more media attention and public interest. 

Sweeping legislation may be politically more complex, but it is often legislatively simpler. It tends to centralize decision-making in the hands of key legislators. It gives the leadership greater influence as bills often take final shape in the leader's office. It makes life easier for the President and executive branch, since they only negotiate with the handful of legislators who are most involved in the bill. And a large, complex bill can give members of Congress the political cover to pass necessary but unpopular measures that are outweighed in the public's mind by the overall accomplishment. 

The risk, of course, is that sometimes political circumstances simply won't permit an all-encompassing approach — as appears to be the case with the climate bill. That is why some legislators prefer making progress by increments. 

I think most people would agree, for instance, that the tax code is shot through with all kinds of inequities. But Congress very rarely gets around to addressing it, because the code is so far-reaching and complex — and any new legislation would open up so many knotty problems — that it's extremely difficult to take a comprehensive approach to reform. It seems more politically realistic and more satisfying to address one problem at a time. 

Moreover, I've always thought that Americans instinctively lean toward incremental change and are suspicious of sweeping attempts to shift public policy — as we continue to see with health-care reform. Because taking things step-by-step is more politically palatable, it makes it far easier to show results. Smaller-scale bills also tend to be dealt with more openly in Congress, going through the regular process of committee and floor procedures that guarantee transparency and wide-ranging input, rather than cobbling together massive bills largely behind closed doors and then rushing them to a vote. And some big issues may not be solvable, but simply have to be managed; making progress in smaller steps, with time to experiment and gauge results, may be the only feasible approach. 

Of course, incrementalism carries its own risks. Sometimes a complex issue — like immigration reform — has so many interlocking pieces that trying to make progress on one or two at a time simply creates more problems than it solves. 

Politicians of both parties, for instance, believe in the need to enhance border security, so that is a logical place for legislative efforts to start. But Congress only has so much energy for a given subject at any one moment, and a full-on push to secure the borders runs the risk that lawmakers will then turn their attention away from immigration for a time — leaving businesses scrambling for workers and local law-enforcement agencies puzzling over what to do about illegal immigrants already in the country. 

The question of whether to take a comprehensive or an incremental approach, then, is not an easy one. Legislators have to decide based on a pragmatic assessment of what they can accomplish. I'm reminded of the comment once made by the late Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois that when he was elected to the Senate he came with the idea of saving the world, but after a few years decided he'd be content with saving the United States. After ten years in office he hoped he could save Illinois, and when he was leaving office, he said he'd settle for saving the exquisite stretch of the Lake Michigan shoreline known as the Indiana Dunes. 

Not everything can be tackled in a grand manner, in other words. A good bit of the art of legislating lies in discerning when it's feasible to go big, and when it's more realistic to settle for smaller — but more attainable — goals. 

(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.)