As Congress Weakens, So Does Our Democracy

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bashing Congress is more popular than ever, but there's a cost. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton points out that "As Congress Weakens, So Does Our Democracy."

With the fall elections approaching, it's open season on Congress. The House and Senate may have notched a set of notable legislative accomplishments this year, but the sight of lawmakers at work appears to have turned off so many Americans that it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Capitol Hill has become its own worst enemy. And that's worrisome, because if Congress cannot remain robust and healthy, then neither can our representative democracy. 

The litany of complaints about how Congress works — or doesn't — is a long one. It has a habit of sidestepping some of the toughest issues we face: getting the fiscal affairs of the nation in order, revamping Social Security and Medicare, or addressing our dependence on energy from foreign sources. When it does act, it's with agonizing slowness, and even then a single senator can bring the process to a halt. Too often it seems immobilized by partisanship — or by complex rules that allow a partisan minority to stop legislation in its tracks. Buffeted by public opinion polls, special interests, omnipresent lobbyists, an avalanche of campaign contributions, and an entrenched and virulent commentocracy, members of Congress often ignore or delay urgent decisions. 

The result is that Congress is losing power. A string of presidents of both parties has worked to tilt the balance in favor of the executive branch, in part on general principle, but lately because they have been reluctant to let their agendas fall hostage to congressional shenanigans. 

Even President Obama, the first president to come directly from Capitol Hill since President Kennedy, will only go so far. He pushed for and won the creation of an outside commission to recommend cuts to Medicare, as a hedge against congressional hesitation over biting the bullet; Congress will have the choice only of whether to accept or reject the recommendations. He created a debt commission to offer specific alternatives for retooling the federal budget. And he has proposed giving the president the power to cut spending provisions even after the budget has passed. 

There is a sense that the legislative process just isn't set up to work," The New York Times commented in taking note of all this, "either because of the severe partisanship in both chambers, or because lawmakers tend to run from painful choices, or because of rules that make it easy for a minority party…to sabotage legislation." 

Even Congress has gotten into the act. In the financial services overhaul bill, it left many of the details up to executive-branch regulators and rule-makers — in essence cutting itself out of the process. 

So if Congress isn't capable of acting, you might ask, then isn't this shift in power a healthy development? The answer, I'm afraid, is an unequivocal No! 

There is no more revered characterization of our Republic than Abraham Lincoln's tribute to "government of the people, by the people, for the people," but few today stop to think about how our nation institutionalizes that goal. So I'll tell you: We do it through Congress. We elect men and women who come from our own states and communities to represent us in Washington — and the Constitution gives them certain powers to ensure not only that they do so, but also that our voices matter when policy gets made. 

When power drifts toward the executive branch, that curtails the power of ordinary people. So do a myriad of forces besetting Congress these days, including well-financed special-interest groups, lobbyists, the federal bureaucracy, the incessant need to raise large sums of money for campaigns, and a media cacophony that makes it all but impossible for well-considered, civil, and nuanced discussion to take place. All of these make some people more important and more powerful than the rest of us. 

As power seeps from Capitol Hill to the executive branch and as other centers of influence proliferate, Congress — the most representative and accessible institution of government — is losing its place in our political firmament. We are, in short, moving away from government of, by, and for the people. 

The fix is obvious, though not simple. Congress needs to pull itself up by its bootstraps, with leaders of both parties becoming diligent partners as well as responsible critics of the White House — regardless of who controls it — and working toward solutions that command broad support. It needs to reassert its role as the place where all Americans believe their voices are not only heard, but heeded. 

And above all, it needs ordinary voters to recognize that a weak Congress diminishes our democracy, and to seek out candidates who promise to uphold their oath to defend the Constitution by doing what it takes to strengthen the institution they hope to serve. 

(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.)