Congress Must Battle to Bring Us Together

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Thursday, August 12, 1999
If you're out with some friends and the talk turns to an issue in the news, chances are the group won't end up in a big fight over it. Either everyone will pretty much agree on the issue, or, if there's disagreement, you'll drop the matter and move on to more congenial topics. No sense stirring up a fuss. 

Many wish that Washington could work that way. One of the most common complaints about politicians is that they are always arguing and bickering. Why do they have to fight so much and seemingly accomplish so little. 

That's a question worth examining, because it gives us a chance to reflect on what our system of government is - and is not - designed to do. 

More than 200 years ago, this nation was started by people who felt that the King of England had ignored the opinions and desires of his American colonies. Fed up with living under a government commanded from the top, our Founders wanted a system that would let more people to have a greater say in shaping policy. So the powers of government were divided among three branches - legislative, executive and judicial. This arrangement wasn’t designed for efficiency. It was set up with lots of checks and balances and with several paths for Americans to influence decisions. 

Of the three branches, Congress is supposed to be the primary "listening post" of the people. How well does it do that job? Not very well, many say, pointing to special interest demands and excessive partisanship. 

But the next time you hear someone complain about the slow and contentious work of Congress, remember that legislative dispute and delay, while surely frustrating, isn't necessarily a sign of democracy in decay. 

Delay occurs because the issues before Congress are much more numerous than in past years, often very complicated and technical, and intensely debated, with a large number of sophisticated groups knowing that key policies and millions of dollars can hinge on every word or comma. It's a tough and tedious job making policy for a country of this vast size and remarkable diversity. Since World War II, the population of the United States has basically doubled, and thousands of groups have emerged to speak for this larger, more diverse body politic. The great variety of our nation's races, religions, regional interests and political philosophies all bring their often-conflicting views to Congress. It's the job of the House and Senate to give all the various sides a chance to be heard and to search for a broadly acceptable consensus. 

The quest for consensus can be painfully slow. Issues involving spending and taxes, health care, and access to guns and abortion stir strong emotions and don’t submit easily to compromise. Inside-the-Beltway scuffling annoys many Americans, but think about it: Do we really want a speedy system in which laws would be pushed through before a consensus develops? Certainly reforms can be made to improve the system, but the basic process of deliberation, negotiation, and compromise is at the very heart of democracy. 

We misunderstand Congress' role if we demand that it be a model of efficiency and quick action. The Founders never intended it to be. They clearly understood that one of the key roles of Congress is to slow down the process-- to allow tempers to cool and to encourage careful deliberation, so that unwise or damaging laws would not pass in the heat of the moment. That basic vision of the Founders still seems wise today. Developing consensus is arduous and exasperating, but it's the only way to produce policies that reflect the varied perspectives of a remarkably diverse citizenry. 

(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.)