How To Strengthen Congress

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Congress is plumbing new depths of unpopularity. Its most important task now is to rebuild itself as a co-equal branch with the President, says former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who offers thoughts on "How To Strengthen Congress."

This is an uncomfortable time to be a member of Congress. Survey after survey registers deep dissatisfaction with Capitol Hill and, more strikingly, with the individual politicians who make it up. An AP poll in April found that half of those surveyed intended to vote against their own members of Congress. A Washington Post-ABC News survey painted an even more dire picture, with the Post writing, "Members of Congress face the most anti-incumbent electorate since 1994, with less than a third saying they are inclined to support their representatives in November." 

Sometimes I think that criticizing Congress is America's favorite indoor sport. And it's not just your average citizen who does it. Members of Congress themselves like to join in, and so do Washington's army of lobbyists and, often, the White House. It is hard to find a voice that defends the Congress. 

Some of the institution's unpopularity can be traced to issues of the moment, such as worries about high levels of federal spending, the health-reform debate, and lingering concern about the economy. 

But the truth is, Congress' low standing is not of recent vintage — its abysmal approval rate of 16 percent in a March Gallup Poll was actually two points higher than in July 2008. Indeed, its approval has been on a long, slow decline since 2002, according to Gallup. The troubles Congress faces, in other words, are more deep-seated than any given public-policy issue. 

So the question is no longer what's wrong with Congress. Far more important is to ask what can be done about it. For, counter-intuitive as it might seem, we need to strengthen Congress, which over the decades has become too timid and weak. It has fallen far short of the role the Founders envisioned for it, and in doing so has put our constitutional system at risk by becoming less representative, accessible, and deliberative. By allowing itself to become a weakened branch, Congress has made representative democracy itself more precarious. 

I often ask the question, "How far down the road can you go in strengthening the executive and weakening the legislature, and still have representative democracy?" We're perilously close to finding out, which makes strengthening Congress one of the most important challenges we face. 

Here's my list of the most important priorities: 

First and foremost, Congress needs to reassert the considerable powers it has been granted by the Constitution: the power of the purse, the ability to set the national policy agenda, and, whenever it comes up again, the decision to go to war. 

Our Founders envisioned Congress as a co-equal branch with the presidency, but in recent years it has lacked a strong institutional voice, either because it was too diffident or so tied up in knots that it could barely stand up for itself. Members simply must take much more seriously their oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution, not the President. It won't change overnight into the robust, co-equal branch the Founders envisioned, but it could be far more assertive in exercising its prerogatives. 

Strengthening oversight. Tough and continuous oversight holds the President accountable, prevents government missteps, and helps it to learn from its mistakes. Congress simply does not pay enough attention to the implementation and management of the programs it enacts. Most fundamentally, oversight is about Congress' responsibility to make sure the federal government is serving the American people. 

Restoring the deliberative process. Democracy is above all about process — how we arrive at decisions and new policies matters immensely. Yet Congress today frequently shortcuts the deliberative process established over the years. It is Congress' job not just to pass laws, but to do so in a way that allows it — and the people it serves — to understand the issues before it, reconcile competing views, and find a way of moving forward even when not everyone agrees. 

Reducing excessive partisanship. Hard-hitting partisan competition can be healthy, but not when it becomes mean-spirited, blocks dialogue, and gets in the way of productive governance. Stalemate in the cause of partisan gain robs Congress of its credibility. 

Strengthening ethics enforcement. Members do not sufficiently understand how important integrity is to the standing of Congress. Quite simply, Congress cannot rebuild its public standing unless Americans trust that its members act always in the public interest and always in a manner that reflects credit on the Congress. 

Curbing the influence of special interests. Too many Americans believe Congress is beholden to well-heeled interests. The root of the matter is the money they pour into campaigns and their success in influencing the legislation that Congress passes. Only informed voters can judge whether an individual member allowed narrow interests to outweigh their own — and the general public's — interests. The absolute transparency to the voter is essential. 

Strengthening citizen participation. Much of what I've suggested above is Congress' responsibility. But making Congress a stronger, more responsive institution ultimately will rest with ordinary Americans. 

Citizens need to take responsibility for remaining informed — and not just by reading material coming from one ideological side; for backing candidates who respect Congress as an institution, and don't merely run against it; for rejecting misinformation and especially appeals to extremism; and for insisting that their own members of Congress work to build, rather than destroy, consensus, comity, and common sense. 

(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.)