Lee Hamilton: Congress tanks, but does it care?

We’re at a watershed moment in American political history. Our Congress — I’m talking about the people’s body, the institution created by our founders, and not just the men and women who currently inhabit it — is in deep trouble. And no one seems to be offering hope.

Its public standing is abysmal, occasionally dropping into the single digits in polling. Very few people seem to respect it, even on Capitol Hill. Small surprise, as the Pew Research Center reported the other day, that “More members of the U.S. House of Representatives are choosing not to seek re-election to that body than at any time in the past quarter-century.” Since filing deadlines haven’t passed in most states that number is almost certain to grow.

Just as worrisome, power is shifting decisively to the President. The “balance of power” you read about in 7th-grade civics? It’s a myth today. Co-equal branches? Not any more. Members of Congress over the years have delegated much of their power to other branches, especially the executive, so that they can escape accountability for tough choices. It allows them to focus more on getting re-elected, and on the local and constituent interests that are their electoral bread and butter.

Here’s what may be the most discouraging thing of all: there was a time when congressional leaders would forcefully defend the Congress. They don’t even bother to do that any more. In fact, it’s not unusual to find them defending their own leadership but criticizing the institution they lead.

To ponder what we can do about it is to confront a long list of daunting challenges. For starters, congressional leaders have abandoned two centuries of precedent, a traditional set of norms, customs and procedures that allowed a body representing the complexities of the entire country to arrive at policy solutions that by and large spoke to the public good.

Today, bills are often drafted outside the committee system, without careful deliberation, consideration, or even participation by most members. The leadership has accumulated more and more power, leaving ordinary members out of the loop, especially in the all-important budget process.

We’re saddled with a Congress that affords special interest groups far too much power. Their representatives and lobbyists swarm over Capitol Hill to influence and cajole, write speeches, supply talking points, and funnel money and favors of all descriptions to members. And because re-election is so expensive, Congress not only accepts all this, but seeks it out. Ordinary citizens have lost influence in the process.

The body itself has become extremely polarized, which means that the decisions it makes are more extreme. House districts are gerrymandered, which has increased the tendency for them to elect the most extreme candidates in both parties, which only accentuates polarized views when these legislators arrive in Washington.

And Congress has largely rejected its oversight responsibilities, which ought to carry a weight equal to legislating — and which put it on a par with the executive branch. It uses the subpoena power rarely, grills administration and other witnesses only occasionally, and even more rarely holds the executive branch accountable. Want an example? We’ve got half a dozen conflicts going on around the world, armed forces in some 70 countries, we’re incurring casualties and putting our men and women in extreme danger — and Congress holds no hearings of any consequence to ask what’s going on or what we’re gaining from the commitments we’ve made around the world.

You can take the agenda for reform from this depressing litany. Congressional leaders need to stop manipulating the process and let members vote on the tough issues of the day. Finding ways to stem the tidal wave of money and favors is crucial. So are ending gerrymandering and tamping down the politics of polarization. Congress needs to reassert the authority given it by the Constitution to serve as a check on executive overreach and misguided policy-making.

Americans have a right to be disappointed in the performance of the legislative branch. But they also have an obligation to speak up about it and demand action not just on a favored bill, but on improving the effectiveness of the Congress itself.

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.­