Why Congress Needs to Assert Itself

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Wednesday, April 14, 2004
The last few weeks have seen an irate response to the news that a high federal official threatened to fire the chief Medicare actuary if he gave Congress his true estimate of how much the administration's new prescription drug benefit would actually cost. Newspaper editorialists, academics, and commentators have all condemned the disregard with which both Congress and the policy-making process were treated in the incident. 

One voice has been conspicuous in its absence, however: that of Congress itself. Though there have been a few individual members who have expressed their concern, I have been disappointed that the Congress, as an institution, has failed to assert forcefully its need for trustworthy information from the executive branch. This is worrisome. 

All partisan loyalties aside, trust is vital to the policy-making process. As Congress set out to reform Medicare, and in particular the drug benefit, it was rightly concerned about the cost of the various alternatives before it. Assured by the administration that its plan would not cost more than $400 billion over the next decade, many members of the House, previously undecided, decided to support it. So the revelation that the chief actuary had actually estimated the figure to be closer to $534 billion- and that the executive branch had withheld this figure from Congress- was not only embarrassing, it called into question the legitimacy of the whole policy-making process. If one branch of government feels it has to deceive the other, it is hard to see how the country can be led well by its public servants. For this reason alone, members of Congress of both parties should have hit the roof. 

Yet there is another, even more fundamental, issue at stake. Congress and the executive branch are colleagues- equals- in determining the course of the country. But in recent years, Congress has grown timid, as its lack of insistence on complete data demonstrates. There is no question these days that the initiative rests largely with the White House and executive agencies. As Washington Post editor Robert Kaiser put it recently, "In fundamental ways that have gone largely unrecognized, Congress has become less vigilant, less proud and protective of its own prerogatives, and less important to the conduct of American government than at any time in decades." Small wonder that, as with Medicare reform, administration officials feel a certain leeway to presume on Capitol Hill's good graces. 

There are any number of ways in which the Congress of today exercises just a shadow of the clout it wielded a generation ago, but one of the most important is its reticence about initiating policy. The United States at the moment faces a crucial series of tests, from rebuilding Iraq to fighting terrorism to the ballooning budget and trade deficits, yet Congress often doesn't seem to have much to say on these matters. Even on civil liberties and how we handle the difficult question of fair process for terrorists on American soil, it has left the ball largely in the administration's court. Admittedly, there's an argument to be made that terrorists don't deserve the same legal protections as American citizens, and the White House has made it. But there is also an argument to be made that, faced with this new threat, we need to create a framework for handling people who would do this country harm while preserving the hallmarks of our judicial system and its emphasis on fairness. This is an avenue that should be explored fully in Congress, yet it has made little effort to do so. 

Why has Congress let slip its responsibilities? Members of Congress themselves give lots of reasons. They range from the legitimate need to tend to their constituents- which now means spending so much time either in the district or en route that only two or three days each week can be devoted to national affairs- to the reality that members know one another less well than they used to, especially if they belong to different parties, and are therefore less inclined to work together. As Robert Kaiser writes, "Few members put loyalty to the House or Senate ahead of their political loyalty to a Democratic or Republican team." 

But that's a political calculation, not necessarily a view of the national interest. Good policy, policy that will stand the test of time, does not evolve when all involved march to the same drummer. Good policy is the result of hard work, searching analysis, solid information and respectful argument about what it means. It is the result of people with different points of view, values, and experiences sitting down together to reason with one another and search for common ground. This is precisely what Congress was designed to foster, and it is what we lose when Congress decides that supporting the party leader is more important than upholding its rights and duties as the institution that most fully represents the American people. 

(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.)