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Hey Leadership! Let Congress Work

Syndicated Columnist

There aren’t many people who would argue that Congress is working well these days. It’s been 24 years since it passed a comprehensive budget without resorting to omnibus bills. It can’t pass health-care legislation, or immigration reform, or act on the environment, education, trade, or the concentration of wealth and economic power. In fact, it seems unable to make progress on any issues of importance to ordinary citizens.

How did we get here? How did the House and the Senate – which these days can only be called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” with ironic air-quotes — become so frustratingly unproductive?

There’s no single answer. Partisanship and polarization among politicians and the American people as a whole have made honest negotiation and compromise politically fraught. A lot of members simply don’t believe in government, and oppose government action. Many are content to defer to the president.

Of course, it’s hard to be effective when you don’t work very hard at legislating. You can’t build consensus or hammer out legislation when you’re so concerned with raising money and pursuing re-election that you put in only a three-day legislative work week.

In the end, it’s hard to avoid faulting the congressional leadership. There’s a list of procedural and structural reforms that might help, but really what needs to happen is that the leadership must let the House and Senate — the full House and Senate — work their wills on the major political issues of the day. These days, leaders usually do their utmost to avoid this.

Putting power back in the hands of ordinary members may seem counter-intuitive when just above I suggested that Congress needs strong leaders. It does — just not leaders who manipulate the process to get the results that they themselves, or some faction of their caucuses, want to see.

Rather, we need leaders who enable members of the Congress to vote on the major issues of the day. This means leadership that recognizes that Congress is filled with diverse and often conflicting opinions, and that to represent and serve the American people as intelligently and effectively as possible, members should vote on the clear-cut and specific issues of most concern to Americans.

Instead, too often today the leadership blocks the full House and Senate from working their respective wills on major legislation. This should end.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for Indiana University