Influential Members of Congress

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Thursday, March 7, 2002
A few years back, Roll Call, which is a bit like the hometown newspaper for Capitol Hill, published a list of the ten most influential members of Congress in the 20th Century. It included some familiar names Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Taft, and some names that people with a knowledge of American history would recognize, such as Joseph Cannon, the iron-fisted House Speaker in the early years of the 20th Century, and Robert La Follette Sr., the founder of the Progressive movement. As I read the article, though, I couldn't help but ponder how difficult creating the list must have been. 

It's not fashionable these days to think of members of Congress as being influential. Sure, they're important in your community or in your state, and they may have some authority within their committees on Capitol Hill. But many people would argue that, other than funding that handy new highway bypass or post office, Congress has little concrete impact on American society. 

With all due respect, I disagree. The reason choosing ten names for the Roll Call article must have been so difficult is that it takes almost no effort at all to come up with a long list of individual members of Congress who have profoundly reshaped the lives of Americans. 

Take Justin Smith Morrill, the Republican Senator from Vermont, who in 1862 created the land-grant college and university system in the United States, opening up higher education to the working class. That was 140 years ago, and yet there are hundreds of thousands of young people today who, were it not for Morrill's efforts, would have a much harder time getting a college degree. 

There's John Sherman, the Republican Senator from Ohio, who believed in opening up competition by eliminating business conspiracies that seek to monopolize the marketplace. There isn't an American consumer out there who doesn't owe a debt to the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. 

And then there are Representative Edward Keating and Senator Robert L. Owen, Democrats from Colorado and Oklahoma, respectively, who were appalled by the widespread use of young children to work in manufacturing and industrial plants. The 1916 Keating-Owen Act was the first federal effort to end child labor. 

I could go on much longer than you'd have patience for: Representative John Jacob Rogers of Massachusetts, who in 1924 created the U.S. Foreign Service, giving the United States a well-trained and educated network of diplomats all over the world; Representative Sam Rayburn of Texas and Senator George Norris of Nebraska, who in 1936 brought about passage of the Rural Electrification Act, transforming the lives of millions of Americans; Senators Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who were the pivotal sponsors of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the landmark legislation opening the door to racial equality in the United States. 

But here's what makes all of this even trickier. Particular pieces of legislation that change the country are important, but so is the institution itself. In the end, Congress is where the American people express themselves in all their diversity, and come to some agreement on what to do about the problems of the day; if it doesn't work, then our republic doesn't work, either. So I would add to our brief survey, members of Congress who may not have a standout law bearing their name, but without whom we as a nation would be decidedly worse off. 

I'm thinking here, for instance, of Richard Bolling, a brilliant Missourian who redesigned the federal budget process, making it far more open and accessible to the public, and whose knowledge of parliamentary procedure allowed him to push over the years for congressional reforms that made the institution itself far more responsive to the American people. Others include Arthur Vandenberg, who exemplified bi-partisanship by helping a President of the opposite party enact the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction; Carl Albert, a conciliator skilled at crafting compromises; Tip O'Neill, who defined the modern Speakership and knew how to make the system work; and Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker, bridge builders who recognized the importance of developing consensus. 

The American political system is built to foster delay, even gridlock, so that Congress can guard against hasty action, take the time it needs to gain public acceptance for courageous legislation, and balance carefully the disparate forces in the country. Forging majorities, making the necessary trade-offs, assuaging egos, and accommodating the different points of view in this highly diverse nation takes great political skill. All of the legislators I've mentioned here and thousands of others were able to manage that process. If Congress did not have people like them, the American political system would not work. I can't think of any greater measure of influence. 

(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.)