How a Former Member Should View the Congress

The Hon. Lee H. Hamilton
Luncheon with Association of Former Members
Apr 22 2004

Good afternoon. It's good to see so many former colleagues and friends here at the Wilson Center. I would like to make a few remarks on how a former Member should view the Congress.

Many of us care deeply about and - at least for most of us - respect the institution. Even though we have moved on to other pursuits, we struggle to put into perspective the institution we served.

But what should we say about the Congress? How do we explain this fascinating, complex and essential institution? How can make use of our unique understanding of the Congress? What do we have to contribute to public understanding of an institution that so often angers, amuses and puzzles the American people? I have often thought that bashing Congress is one of America's all time favorite indoor sports.

Let me try to answer these questions. I believe a former Member should be both a partner and a critic to the Congress.

We should explain it, stand up for it, defend its role in our Constitutional system. In short, be a partner with it.

But we should also critique its performance when necessary; we should point out when and where it goes off track. In short, be a critic of it.

Speaking up for Congress

The brightest wits in American life have had their fun at the expense of Congress:

H.L. Mencken said that, "with the right pressure, Congressmen would cheerfully be in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism."

Mark Twain said, "suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

Will Rogers said that, "Congress was a never-ending source of amusement, amazement, and discouragement." Even so, we honor him with that magnificent statue just off the House floor.

When I was in the Congress, I was never bothered by the barbs. What did bother me, though, was the extent to which people do not understand or appreciate the basic role Congress plays in our representative democracy, and the concepts that underlie the workings of the Congress.

I am often struck by how few voices defend the Congress as an institution. Who speaks for the Congress?

We all know that one path to electoral success is to make yourself look good and make Congress look bad. Most candidates - incumbents and challengers - run for Congress by running against Congress. I've done it. I think I could do it in my sleep - I probably have. You probably have done it also.

But what happens to the state of the Congress when everyone criticizes it and no one defends it? How far down that road can you go and still have a viable, credible institution at the center of our representative democracy?

Congress cannot function well if so many think that it is unresponsive or incompetent or irrelevant. Skepticism is one thing. But giving up on the system entirely is another. That is why you and I - as former Members - have a special obligation: where others tear down the Congress, we can speak to its strengths and defend it.

We can be partners to the Congress. As a partner, what can we say about it?


First, we can point out that Congress is the core of our representative democracy. Indeed, without Congress we would have no representative democracy.

Congress - with all of its faults - is the most representative body in the land. It reflects - however imperfectly - the bigness and diversity of America. It responds - however imperfectly - to the expressed hopes, desires and ambitions of the American people.

Many of the constituents that I met with over several decades did not understand the unique role Congress plays as the representative body in our democracy.

Madison himself held that in a representative democracy, "the legislative authority necessarily predominates."

"We the people" and "consent of the governed" aren't merely phrases to recite on patriotic holidays. They are words we live by. Our system rests squarely on the belief that freedom exists only where one is governed with one's consent, and with a voice in one's government.

The question for the Founders was how to ensure that peoples' views are reflected in government. The answer was the Congress.

Madison and his compatriots wanted to guard against the tyranny of the majority; they wanted to guarantee the rights of the minority and ensure that the passions of the moment were cooled in deliberate debate. The answer was the Congress.

So they opted for a system where people carry their voices to Washington through the Congress. That is why they gave the Congress the power to pass laws, levy taxes, raise armies, and regulate commerce. That is why they made Congress accountable to the people.

In short, that is why Congress is the "First Branch" of the government.

You and I know well the words painted prominently above the entrance to the House: Alexander Hamilton's statement, "Here, sir, the people govern. " You and I also know well enough that Congress may not always do justice to the vision that the Founders had for it. It is far from perfect. But it is a necessary institution in a representative democracy.

The grand purpose of the Congress - the purpose enshrined in the words of Madison, Hamilton, and others - is to guarantee our freedom. As a partner to the Congress, we should not let people forget that.


Second, we can point out that Congress is the most accessible branch of government.

An unhappy voter with a real or perceived grievance cannot call the President or the Vice-President or the Secretary or even the Deputy Secretary. That voter can call and get a response from a Congressman or Senator.

But often we hear the charge: Congress is out of touch! Polls consistently show that 60% of the public thinks elected officials are not responsive.

As a Member, I always felt it was hard to keep on the right side of the voter. When I was in my District, I heard complaints that I wasn't spending enough time in Washington; when I was in Washington, people said I was ignoring the home folks.

When I drove an old car in my District, people said it looked like something a farmer would use for hauling trash; when I got a new car, they said the lobbyists had gotten to me. When I missed church, people said I was an atheist; when I attended church, I was a pious fraud, trolling for votes in church.

It's not easy to stay in touch. Today, 435 Members of the House represent districts with an average of 650,000 constituents - some with vast areas.

You and I know how much time legislators spend staying in touch. It's a constant topic of conversation at lunch or walking between meetings on the Hill. Members travel home for long weekends; host call-in shows; go to forums and festivals; host "virtual town meetings" on the Internet; keep ample room on their schedules for constituent meetings; and direct staff to answer the myriad of letters, phone calls, faxes and e-mails that come in every day.

The truth is that Congress is by far the most accessible branch of government. You and I can remind people that their representatives face a complex job with multiple responsibilities. And that "keeping in touch" is a two-way street: citizens can initiate contacts and respond to outreach efforts. After all, in a representative democracy it takes the participation and goodwill of all to make things work.


Third, we can point out the importance of Congress' independence.

Presidents are served by powerful aides, all of whom serve at his pleasure and are dependent upon him for their position. It is the rare aide who can and will say: "Mr. President, you're wrong." Or, as George Reedy put it, in the White House no one says: "Mr. President, go soak your head."

Members of Congress do not depend on the President for their office. They are independent - free to give him independent advice. And they often do. For a President, that advice - if used skillfully - can be a tremendous asset.

One time I was traveling with President Clinton in China. At a stop outside of Beijing it fell to me to explain the American system of government to a group of Chinese students. I did my best, but I'm not sure I explained it as well as I should have. Looking back, I realize what a golden opportunity it was - to explain what American government is all about to a totally foreign culture.

What is it all about?

I think the key is balance. And balance depends on a strong and independent Congress - not a Congress that is a servant or rubber stamp for the President.

In our system Congress checks his power. It also forces him to speak to a body made up of diverse interests representing the American people that is - in many respects - closer to them than he is.

Indeed, the Founders gave more powers to the Congress precisely because they feared that an all-powerful president would repeat the mistakes of the King. Thus they gave Congress a degree of independence from the Executive that - even today - is rare among the world's democracies.

So when someone complains about Congress "getting in the way," I remind them that freedom is impossible without an independent legislature. And I quote one of my favorite remarks about the relationship between Congress and the President, from former Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn: "I served with, not under, eight presidents."


Finally, we can point out the importance of Congressional process.

People often complain about a do-nothing Congress. At a time when the world moves at light-speed, Congress seems stuck in another century and follows arcane procedures.

The charges abound: Gridlock! Foot-dragging! Obstructionist! People don't appreciate layered budget, authorization and appropriation processes. People deplore filibusters. People don't understand why it can take years for important bills to wind through committees, floor consideration, and conferences.

You and I know that these roadblocks are built into the system for a reason. Our country is big and complicated. We've got a lot of differences - regional, ethnic, and economic. Issues like taxes, health care, abortion or guns stir strong emotions and don't lend themselves easily to compromise.

You and I can pose the questions:

  • Do we want a system where laws are pushed through before consensus is reached?
  • Do we want a system in which minority views are trampled by a majority's rush to action?
  • Do we want a Congress that is a model of efficiency, or a Congress where diverse opinions are considered and consensus prized?

The very essence of the Congress is deliberation. Congress is - or at least should be - a deliberative body.

Most Americans may be familiar with the diagram of how a bill becomes a law. Whenever I see those charts I think to myself how sterile they are. They do not convey the dynamics - the frustration, the excitement, the complexity, the necessity of the process. And it is necessary. For deliberative lawmaking is what makes us a democracy.

Perhaps the best service you and I can render is explaining to people that some of the most maddening things about Congress are also its greatest qualities. People may sometimes complain about the process, but they benefit from its legislative speed bumps when they want their views heard, their interests protected, and their rights safeguarded.

For in the end, democracy is a process of deliberation - not a product.

Critiquing the Congress

While we need to speak up for the Congress, we should also be a constructive critic of the institution when it goes off track.

We will all have our own feelings about what Congress could do better. As I have said, it is an imperfect institution. Let me mention a few things that trouble me about how Congress is functioning as an institution. I am confident you would have your own list. I don't mean mine to be comprehensive - only illustrative.

Winning Isn't Everything

One particularly troubling aspect is that winning has become everything. Because of this, deliberative process is sometimes bypassed.

This is not the fault of any particular Member or any particular party. It has been building over a number of years, and it risks producing a system where process is overrun, and legitimacy is lost.

Over a period of years, under both parties:

  • Leadership has become more aggressive in enforcing a rigid party line;
  • Huge supplementals or omnibus bills have made a mockery of legislative process;
  • and important bills have bypassed committees and debate.

On three recent far-reaching domestic initiatives - tax cuts, a rewrite of the Medicare rules, and a new energy strategy - the responsibility for crafting legislation was left to conference committees. The regular committees were bypassed.

These trends are part of the win-at-all costs atmosphere increasingly settling over Congress. Longstanding traditions, procedures and values are being pushed aside.

Certainly winning does and should matter to Members - all of whom feel strongly about issues. But short-term legislative victories risk damaging the long-term health of the institution.

Too few Americans understand how much the details of the process matter. Bringing an issue before committee; hearing what witnesses have to say about it; arguing over amendments; sending a bill to the floor; again arguing over amendments; debating a final version; and then sending House and Senate versions to conference - why go to all that effort? It can take months, frequently years, for a measure to clear all those hurdles.

But when this process is given short shrift, hard questions aren't asked. Talent and expertise are not utilized. Different backgrounds and viewpoints aren't brought to bear. Consensus between competing opinions isn't built. In short, our democracy does not function as it was intended to, and Members can 't ensure that legislation meets the needs of a broad array of Americans.

I used to wince when I heard comments like: "Let's get on with it. We have the votes and can do whatever we want." For shutting down process and debate does more than poison the partisan waters. It risks the faith of Members in their own institution, and the public's trust that their views are being represented. It erodes the standing and credibility of the institution.

Members would do well to remember that simple maxim: winning isn't everything. We need to remember the treasured values at the core of the mission of the Congress: deliberation, comity, democratic access, and respect for minority views.

The bottom line is that Members owe their allegiance to more than constituents or party; they owe it to the institution itself, and to their oath of office to the United States Constitution.

Broken Oversight

Congress is also increasingly punting on one of its key functions: oversight.

Performing vigorous and informed oversight is one of the vital functions of the Congress. It demands tedious, technical, and often unglamorous work.

But it is the best and sometimes only means of looking at the nooks and crannies of government's everyday activity. Oversight answers key questions: Are federal programs working? Are pieces of legislation living up to their expectations? Will this policy keep the American people safe? Is there misconduct? Is a program cost-effective?

In short, oversight is the best shot the American people have at influencing an Administration after it is voted into office.

But - unfortunately - there is little evidence that Congress is fulfilling this charge. This "broken oversight" can be attributed to several factors:

  • too much focus on scoring political points;
  • too much power concentrated in the hands of the leadership;
  • infrequent meetings of authorizing committees;
  • and a lack of a far-sightedness.

Because Congress is funding government through continuing resolutions or massive appropriations bills, routine effective reauthorization has - for the most part - disappeared. Because of this, effective probes of agencies don't take place.

The cost of this is twofold: First the Congress loses power. Second, the executive branch avoids examination of its positions. When positions escape thorough examination, they are not fine-tuned, and policy suffers.

This is not good for Congress, it is not good for the President, and it is not good for the Nation.


Another area that troubles me - though it may be changing - is the "truce" over ethics charges in the House.

Now I'm usually for bipartisanship. But this détente between parties - coupled with a 1997 rules change forbidding outside complaints to the ethics Committee - has effectively frozen the ethics process in the House. Since 1997, the ethics Committee has taken official action on only five cases.

Of course there is a reason for this. In the late 1980s and early 1990s charges and counter-charges flew around the chamber. This undoubtedly fed the partisanship of our era. And I certainly don't want to see the ethics process used as a political weapon.

But the truce has clearly not solved matters. Partisan rancor is still as high as I've seen it. Meanwhile, allegations eat away at the integrity of the institution, and the effective standard of behavior for a Member seems to be that he or she not be convicted of a felony. The basic standard of conduct - that a Member should reflect credit on the House - should be enshrined and "enforced."

I have always thought that the vast majority of Members are honest, hard-working legislators. But the American people deserve even more. They deserve a Congress that is serious about policing itself.

Now is the time for both houses to take a hard look at how they monitor the behavior of their Members. Congress needs a robust, credible ethics process that can be immune to cynicism. And if partisanship is the problem, then perhaps congressional leaders should tackle it directly.

Asserting Itself

Finally, Congress needs to assert itself.

As I said before, Congress and the Executive Branch were designed to be partners. But in recent years - under the leadership of both parties - Congress has grown too timid.

These days the initiative rests largely with the White House and executive agencies in initiating and shaping policy. At a critical time in American history, on the key issues of the day - from Iraq to civil liberties to Medicare - Congress has deferred.

There are many reasons for this - some of which I've listed above. Part of it is that some Members must spend much of the week tending to their constituents back home. Part of it is that Members simply don't know each other as well as they used to. Part of it is that Members put party loyalty above all else.

But good policy - policy that will stand the test of time - does not evolve when everyone marches to the beat of the lead drummer. Good policy is the result of hard work, searching analysis, solid information, respectful argument, and painfully built consensus.

All of these critiques run together. When Members lose faith in the importance, vitality and vigilance of their own institution, the Congress suffers. To put it bluntly, Congress risks exercising just a shadow of the clout it wielded a generation ago.


So we former Members have both an opportunity and an obligation to raise our voices. We can best show our loyalty to the institution by being both its partner and its critic.

There are many ways in which we can do this:

  • We can speak to our colleagues still serving in the House and Senate;
  • We can speak to the general public so that constituents understand the institution better, and gain a sense of how they, as citizens, can join the dialogue of democracy;
  • We can speak to those who work closely with the Congress;
  • And we can speak to the media, to give a balanced sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the institution, and to encourage good coverage of the Congress.

We should raise these issues because we care about them. And because we know that to avoid ripping apart at the seams, our country needs people who know how to accommodate different points of view and work for common solutions - it needs the Congress. This is how we resolve our differences and live together peacefully, productively and successfully.

For in the Congress, Americans have a forum for debate and deliberation in which they can feel a stake. That was the genius of the Founders.

It does not work perfectly or efficiently and it never will. It wasn't meant to. It was meant to give voice to the American people - their competing interests, their highest ideals, their peculiar flaws, and their enduring strength of character.

But Congress' imperfection does not mean we shouldn't try to make it better. For making Congress more perfect is essential to our ongoing pursuit of a more perfect union.