By Lee H. Hamilton
I had the good fortune last week to spend some time in Washington, D.C., with about a dozen former members of Congress. As you’d expect, we got to talking about the current Congress. Very quickly it turned out that the same question was troubling all of us: Why is it held in such low public esteem?
We represented both parties and a variety of eras, and had a range of experience under our belts. But we all found ourselves chagrined by what we’ve been witnessing. You have to understand that most former members of Congress believe deeply in the value of the institution for American representative government. We might take opposite sides of particular policy debates, but on one point we all agree: we want the institution itself to succeed and thrive. These days, it’s doing neither.
For starters, we were hard-pressed to come up with any real accomplishments for the year. Congress did pass a revision to No Child Left Behind and a controversial expansion of cyber-surveillance capabilities—which it slipped into a must-pass budget bill. It also took the entirely uncontroversial step of broadening sanctions on North Korea. But that’s pretty much it. In the country at large, people are fretting about everything from control of our borders to stagnant wages and the spread of ISIS. On Capitol Hill, no one seems particularly concerned.
Worse, members show little interest in making Congress more productive. Our little group all remembered times when we or our colleagues pushed reform efforts to make the institution work better—and were struck that current members aren’t doing so. Most Americans belong to some group or another that’s trying to accomplish change for the better and improve itself at the same time. Why should Congress be an outlier? Yet it is.
None of us believed this is irreversible. We are all convinced that strong leadership in Congress could make an immense difference. In the past, effective legislators on both sides of the aisle—as committee chairs and as caucus leaders—have left behind them a legacy of great accomplishment.
I won’t waste your time with a list of them, because the point is simple: it may be a different time and legislative environment from 50 years ago, but strong leadership can make Congress work. On that, my former colleagues and I, Republicans and Democrats, found ourselves in full agreement.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.