Why Congress Exists

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2001
I was once driving through southern Indiana on the way from one town meeting to another when I flipped on the radio. A well-known radio personality was talking, and he was attacking Congress. I don't remember exactly what we had done that annoyed him, but I do remember clear as day what he concluded. "We'd be a lot better off," he declared, "if we just did away with Congress!" 

I remember thinking to myself how profoundly he misunderstood the U.S. Constitution and our system of representative democracy. "This fellow," I announced to the radio, "needs some lessons in American history." 

You have to remember that the Founders who drew up our Constitution didn't want any single person able to impose his will on the country. They had just fought a war with England over the subject, and they were quite apprehensive about recreating a monarchy on American soil. Just as important, they understood that even an elected leader, or group of leaders, shouldn't have too much power. That's why they divided the federal government. A balance among the various powers of government, they reasoned, would most firmly protect citizens' liberties. In particular, they believed freedom would be meaningless without a legislature that is independent of the President, able to represent the people of the United States in checking his desires. 

An independent legislature is a key test of freedom in our country, or any country. Indeed, I am doubtful whether freedom can exist– or ever has existed– in a country without a free and independent parliament. So ever since it was first set up by the Founders as the "First Branch" in our system of government, the historic mission of Congress has been to maintain freedom in the country. 

But this wasn't all they had in mind for Congress. If you visit the Capitol in Washington, look up as you approach the House of Representatives and you'll see, painted prominently above the entrance, Alexander Hamilton's statement, "Here, sir, the people govern." It is quite easy these days to proclaim cynically that Hamilton's words are just so much dust. Yet those who do are wrong, in spite of all the special interests that besiege Congress and all the money that flows into congressional campaigns. For Congress reflects us in all our strengths and all our weaknesses—it reflects our regional idiosyncrasies, our ethnic and racial diversity, our multitude of professions, our shadings of opinion on everything from the value of war to the war over values. Congress is the most representative body in the country. It is no accident that the Founders gave it the power to make laws, to levy taxes, and to decide how the government will spend its money: It is Congress that gives the American people their voice in the counsels of power. 

Or perhaps I should say, "voices." For by representing the multitude that we are, Congress is essentially charged with reconciling our many points of view on the great public policy issues of the day. That is why Congress often takes its time about things. To do their jobs, our representatives have to forge compromises, persuade others with the force of their arguments, and build a consensus behind an approach, if not a solution, to those issues. 

Now, I served in Congress long enough to know that it doesn't always do justice to the role the Founders had in mind for it. But even when it doesn't serve a particular issue well, it still serves its larger purpose. "The numbers of men in all ages have preferred ease, slumber, and good cheer to liberty, when they have been in competition," John Adams wrote to his cousin, Samuel, in 1790. "We must not then depend alone upon the love of liberty in the soul of man for its preservation. Some political institutions must be prepared, to assist this love against its enemies." 

That is what Congress does — it is the guarantor of liberty. And that is why radio commentators who would wish it out of existence need to sit down, take a deep breath, and do a little reading and thinking. 

(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.)