Congress Shouldn't Just Be About Winning

Monday, February 16, 2004
A few weeks ago, a disturbing report surfaced on Capitol Hill. In an article that probably set a record for the speed at which it circulated around official Washington, the Boston Globe reported that Majority staffers on the Senate Judiciary Committee had "infiltrated [Minority] computer files for a year, monitoring secret strategy memos and periodically passing on copies to the media." The computerized spying gave these staffers a chance not only to anticipate the opposition's strategy on President Bush's judicial appointments, but to make opponents look bad through well-timed leaks to the media. 

The incident is another unfortunate illustration of a win-at-all-costs atmosphere increasingly settling over Congress, both among its members and, as in this instance, over-eager staffers. It matters how you play the game in Congress, and the growing ease with which longstanding traditions, procedures and values are being pushed aside should worry everyone who cares about American democracy and the institutions that uphold it. 

If you look at the trends in how Congress handles matters of great substance, it's clear that accumulating power and pushing through legislation are coming to hold the upper hand over a whole set of values that we ought to treasure: deliberation, comity, democratic access, respect for minority views. This is not, by the way, a partisan criticism: Congress may be controlled by Republicans now, but the trends I'm talking about began taking hold under Democratic leadership. 

I realize that, as a former member of Congress, I risk looking like a fusty old codger tut-tutting the harmless exuberance of a new generation. Certainly, winning matters for the 535 duly elected Senators and Representatives, all of whom feel strongly about issues and all of whom want to represent the best interests of their constituents. Yet winning should not be the only thing in a democracy, and what has been happening with increasing frequency in Congress is not harmless. There are real principles at stake these days on Capitol Hill. 

The worrisome trends include the outsized influence enjoyed by monied special interests; a readiness to bypass the committee process, which is where true deliberation takes place and where those who disagree with a proposal have their strongest opportunity to inject their views into the discussion; the concentration of power in the hands of a few leaders, thereby making rank-and-file members of Congress, and with them their constituents, less and less relevant; a growing use of conference committees for end-runs around inconvenient- but majority- opinions in the entire House or Senate; the majority's habit of denying the minority a voice; and a sharp rise in partisanship within Congress. 

To understand why all this matters, let's take an example. In the budget bill that passed out of Congress in late January, there were a number of very controversial measures that were slipped in by the leadership, even though majorities in both houses actually opposed them. These include new rules that allow employers to stop paying middle-income workers overtime; a measure cutting the length of time the FBI must keep gun sale records from 90 days to one day; and a provision raising the percentage of Americans a single media company can reach through television- a gift to specific media conglomerates. 

The issue is not whether these are good or bad measures. The issue is that major changes in policy were allowed to pass with little discussion or fair process on the part of Congress. That is not, to my mind, how a democracy works. 

>And that's really what we're talking about here. Democracy is a process, not an outcome. It's how we as a society examine the issues confronting us, attempt to reconcile competing views, and try to move forward even when we don't all agree. For this to work, all involved have to feel that, even if the process didn't produce the outcome they wanted, it was still fair- their voices were heard, their opinions considered, all competing options were weighed. When those in positions of power within Congress start acting as though these things don't matter, the institution starts losing legitimacy among its own members, and, more importantly, among the American people. 

(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.)