The Impact of Congress

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Tuesday, February 13, 2001
When I was a Member of Congress, I would often ask in my public meetings whether anyone could name a federal program that worked well. Usually not a single hand went up — even when the audience was filled with people who received Social Security checks every month, who drove to the meeting on the interstate highway, or who had attended the local university with the help of federal student loans. The response of my constituents was fairly typical. It has become increasingly popular to dismiss Congress as an irrelevant institution, full of people who love the limelight but contribute little to the national well-being. 

Skepticism toward government has always been a healthy strain in American thinking. The Constitution with its emphasis on measures to check official power is one reflection of that view. In recent decades, we have seen the relative optimism about government of the early 1960s give way to a broader pessimism, with many believing that government creates more problems than it solves, and with many others believing that it is simply irrelevant to their everyday lives. 

Government is certainly not perfect. There are inefficiencies, mistakes, and blunders. We should not overlook these, but neither should they form the overwhelming impression of what government does. A recent Brookings Institution study — "Government's Greatest Endeavors of the Past Half Century" — reminds us that there is another side to the story. 

The study developed a list of more than 500 major laws passed by Congress in the last 50 years and then surveyed hundreds of college professors, asking them to rank those of the greatest achievement. The societal problems which spawned the enactments were as complex and difficult as the legislative solutions themselves. Heading the list were: the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II; the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the ban on discrimination in housing and in the workplace; the fight against cancer and other diseases; safe food and drinking water standards; the national highway system; Medicare; the balanced federal budget; expanded Social Security and pension coverage; the GI Bill; arms control; the school lunch program; and dozens of other laws which still have a significant impact on our lives every day. 

As I look through this list, what strikes me is how these laws have improved the quality of our lives. Many of us enjoy basic rights and protections, get good medical care, have safer workplaces, drink cleaner water, eat safer food, and breathe cleaner air, and have more secure retirements — all because of government activity. 

Granted, an equally interesting study could be done on "Government's Greatest Failures of the Past Half Century". Yet the report is still a helpful, and all too infrequent, reminder that as a nation we have come far in seeking to end difficult and deep-seated problems both here and abroad. And that's the key point. America is an individual-centered society, but when pollution threatens our health, when energy shortages develop, when many children lack access to basic health care, or when our schools lag behind those in other countries, then part of the way to cope with these problems more effectively is to have action by Congress. 

The failures of government will always receive far more attention than its successes. But as America faces a host of difficult challenges in this new 21st century, we need a broader public recognition that while government may be part of the problem in the United States, it is also part of the solution. 

(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.)