Remember to Separate the Wheat from the Chaff in Congress

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Thursday, June 23, 2005
Spend some time with a member of Congress, and you're almost certain to hear this lament: Behind all the hoopla, voting on legislation often doesn't feel very important. Day after day on Capitol Hill, the bells ring to signal a vote, sending congressmen or senators racing to the floor. There, they cast ballots to name a new post office, or to pass yet another commemorative like National Indoor Comfort Week, or to approve some 'sense of the Congress' resolution that will have little, if any, impact. 

During my years in Congress, I cast more than 16,000 votes, and I have to confess that I don't remember what many of them were about. 

I was reminded of this not long ago when the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call ran an article on 'Ten Bills That Really Mattered' over the last 50 years. As it happens, I served in Congress when a good number of the "Top Ten" bills came up, and I remember those votes very clearly. 

The article drove home the point that Congress does at times emerge as the centerpiece of American democracy, as the Founders intended it to be. When that happens, it can change the nation for good. 

Take the first item on Roll Call's list: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In compiling its list, the newspaper surveyed a range of congressional scholars, both liberal and conservative. Almost all ranked this legislation first. "Coming after a decade of civil rights struggle in the South and on the heels of President John F. Kennedy's assassination," the paper wrote, "the hotly contested act effectively ended racial discrimination in public accommodations and employment. Less noticed initially, but arguably just as significant, is the Act's role in ending discrimination based on sex." 

I got to Congress just in time to vote on the next item on the list, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had two effects — the intended one of expanding voting rights for African-Americans, and an unintended consequence, the realignment of voting patterns among many Southern whites, who began shifting their allegiance to the Republican Party. Legislation sometimes has repercussions far beyond its intended limits. 

Indeed, if you think back over the last half-century, it's not at all difficult to come up with a list longer than 10 items of legislative measures that reshaped the face of American society, in ways both foreseeable and not. There was the creation of the federal highway system in 1956, which spurred the trade of goods and also the decline in population of inner cities. In 1965, the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid gave the nation's poor and elderly access to health care, but now it also poses immense challenges to federal and state budgets. Other landmark measures include the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the deregulation of the airlines in 1978, welfare overhaul in 1998, laws protecting air and water and expanding wilderness. 

I could go on, but you get the idea: Congress has few equals in its ability to shape the lives of Americans and influence the direction and success of our country. Congress is where all the varied interests in this vast and diverse nation come together to hash out the future and reach a collective decision on where we want to head as a society. 

Often the news from Capitol Hill is about partisan standoffs and petty bickering, rhetorical posturing and ethics controversies. Recent polls show that the public's regard for Congress has dropped sharply. What this tells me is that Americans want their representatives in Washington to pay closer attention to the issues that affect our daily lives. The people of this nation look to Congress for actions that matter to us all. 

(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.)