Congress Needs Proper Leadership

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Monday, December 15, 2008
As Congress moves beyond last November's elections and turns its attention to governing, it has to perform one of the toughest pivots in American politics. Governing is much more difficult than campaigning. After going at it hammer and tongs in congressional races, Democrats and Republicans now have a branch of government to run and policy to produce. Switching priorities to put the country and the institution of Congress ahead of politics can be a stretch for members. 

The key to whether they succeed, enabling Congress to reach its potential as a representative body more equal in weight to the presidency, will be the congressional leadership. Its members set the tone of the Congress: They can act as stewards of its institutional strength, integrity, and effectiveness, or squander its potential. 

They signal how much weight they'll attach to ethical behavior and tough ethics enforcement, and can make or break legislation designed to further it. They determine whether cooperation across party lines will be the order of the day, a rarity, or out of the question. They decide how the budget is to be put together. Above all, they craft the congressional agenda and determine whether it's going to be used merely to score political points or to respond in good faith to challenges facing our nation. 

Leaders are the ones in a position to determine which issues will come forward for consideration, and which will be set aside; what oversight will be done and what ignored; what will get the media spotlight and what will remain in the shadows; which programs will be included in appropriations bills and which won't. 

They have enormous power, in other words, over both the substance and the style of Congress. And they are the ones who largely determine whether Congress will become a stronger partner in our representative democracy or defer to the president to take the lead. 

In some periods, as during the Great Society era during the 1960s, Congress was highly regarded because it was seen as addressing the key problems facing the country. There were significant accomplishments amid bipartisan cooperation, if not collegiality. Other periods have seen a breakdown on both fronts. And still others may produce a less productive record on legislation, but still be marked by an overall respect for Congress's integrity as an institution. 

When House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Minority Leader Bob Michel squared off in public debate during the 1980s, for instance, it was only after intense but congenial discussions over how each of their caucuses viewed a measure; they would give a ringing speech on the floor to rally their troops, but in almost every case each man knew how the vote would turn out. They knew how to work with one another to assure that Congress lived up to its constitutional responsibilities, while remaining true to their political responsibilities. 

Leaders must be held principally responsible for the performance of the Congress. If the institution is not performing well under stress - if it is ignoring proper budget process, sidestepping tough issues, not disciplining wayward members, or deferring excessively to the president and neglecting its constitutional role - that is a failure of congressional leadership. Often, leaders are quick to blame the opposition for standing in the way of progress, and sometimes that's legitimate; frequently, though, it's because the leaders failed to work well together, putting political advantage over legislative solutions. 

Over the last few decades, the leaders' responsibility for Congress's performance has grown measurably greater. This is because their power has, too: Leaders of both parties have worked to increase their budgets and concentrate power in their offices. Their staffs have grown - where a speaker or minority leader might once have turned for policy advice to the chairs of particular committees, they now have their own advisors on energy or foreign policy or the economy. 

And they have changed the process, most notably with the budget, to favor themselves. When spending priorities were put together by the various committees, rank-and-file members knew, in detail, what was in the budget and they had significant input into its contents. Now, Congress often acts by omnibus bill, which puts enormous power in the hands of a few leaders and their staff. 

This is not a favorable trend. The increasing concentration of power in the leaders diminishes the role of other members and distorts representative democracy. Congress derives its legitimacy and authority from its members, who represent the American people in all their diversity. This is why the Framers put Congress first in the Constitution. When that multitude of voices is ignored or weakened, it is hard to see how Congress will ever be able to assert its standing as a separate, independent, and forceful branch of government. 

(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.)