Tackling the Tough Issues

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Tuesday, July 16, 2002
Recently I gave a speech about Congress and how it operates, and afterwards someone from the audience came up to me, unhappy. "You are too generous," he said. "I'm disappointed in Congress every day." 

My critic had a good point. Anyone who follows Congress has been disappointed with its work - maybe not every day, but probably more than occasionally. 

The public is displeased with Congress for a variety of reasons. There is too much partisan bickering. The chase for campaign contributions is relentless, and the power of moneyed interests is too great. Some members' ethics aren't what they ought to be, and enforcement of high standards is uneven. 

But my chief disappointment with Congress is that it often does not deal head-on with the biggest, most difficult problems facing our country - problems such as the large number of Americans who do not have health insurance, the long-term threats to the solvency of Social Security, and the failure to reduce dependence on foreign energy sources. 

Too often, Congress puts off doing anything substantive about these and other big issues, resorting instead to posturing and speechmaking, trying to make people believe that real action is occurring when in fact, it is not. In the House and the Senate, a lot of time gets wasted with members from one party blaming the other for the failure to get anything done. 

Sometimes when confronted with a difficult problem, Congress spends its energy dealing with it only on the margins. Take, for example, the recent congressional debate over setting up a Patients Bill of Rights. 

There's no question that some patients suffer at the hands of health care providers whose zeal to cut costs leads to substandard care. But such abuse is just one of the problems in the American health care system, and not the biggest one at that. Congress needs to take a more comprehensive approach to reforming the health care system, dealing first with its most glaring flaw, which is the fact that millions of people cannot afford any medical treatment because they have no health care insurance. 

This practice has even gotten its own title from political observers: "surrogate issue", the congressional habit of working on one small piece of a problem while leaving the bigger issue unresolved. And it is one that often frustrates members of Congress themselves. A commonly heard question among members on the floor is why they are taking up some minor bill when so many huge problems are facing the nation. 

I certainly don't want to say that Congress never tackles tough issues. During my time in Congress, the 1983 Social Security rescue package and the 1986 tax reform act were examples of Congress grappling with complicated, politically sensitive issues and ultimately passing very important legislation. But overall, the record of Congress over the past several decades in addressing the biggest challenges facing our country has been mixed at best. 

Serious obstacles stand in the way of Congress as it seeks to deal with the nation's thorniest problems. Solutions are not easy to devise, because there often is not one clearly correct way to address the problem. Liberals may prefer more active government involvement in addressing a problem, whereas conservatives typically prefer a remedy that encourages the private sector to devise a solution. Either course might work, but serious people of differing views naturally will debate at length over the proper path for Congress to pursue. 

Moreover, our system of government was not set up for quick action, especially on tough issues where there is no clear societal consensus about the correct response. The Framers of our Constitution wanted to make sure that all sides would have an opportunity to be heard and that there would be time for negotiation and compromise, instead of letting a majority ram controversial measures into policy quickly. Congress can act quickly when there is a national consensus; but when there are deep divisions in the country, that is reflected in the Congress. 

None of this excuses Congress for its inaction on big problems confronting our nation. Taking on the tough issues is its responsibility. If Congress does not deal with them, how are they going to be solved? 

What can remedy the situation, and make Congress more responsive to the really big issues? Members need to think in a longer-term way about the challenges facing the country. They need to be less partisan and more pragmatic, focusing on finding solutions and less on hewing to an ideologically or politically pure line. Above all, they need to focus more on the common good - not on what is best for a particular group or party, but on what is best for the country. 

Voters also have a role to play in helping Congress solve the big problems. They must give members of Congress a clear signal over a sustained period of time that action on these key national challenges is both needed and expected. 

(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.)