You might not have noticed, given the media’s fascination with the presidential campaign, but there are 435 U.S. House contests and 35 U.S. Senate races taking place this year.
These are important elections, for even more reasons than you might be hearing about. Indeed, unless I miss my guess, the candidates and press in those many contests are barely talking about one of the most important issues we face: the role of Congress itself.
The litany of matters worrying Americans and absorbing the attention of congressional candidates is, of course, long and complex: the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the challenges posed by Iran, the state of American public education, climate change, a long-term energy policy, immigration, etc. Not surprisingly, many voters want to hear how Congress can protect them from financial ruin or how candidates propose to keep America strong. They’re less interested in how Congress functions.
Yet unless Congress learns how to reassert its constitutional responsibility to be the president’s equal in policy-making, the progress voters yearn to see on all those issues will be much harder to come by. This is why, as you listen to the various House and Senate candidates campaigning for your vote, I hope you’ll pay attention not only to what they say about the economy or Iraq, but also to how they talk about Congress itself.
It’s been the habit both of incumbents and their challengers during recent years to run for Congress by running against the Congress. They criticize its profligate spending or its do-nothing ways or its shoddy ethics or the undue influence of money and lobbyists. These are all choice targets, and they have their place in the campaign debate, but you have to wonder how long this denigration of Congress can continue before Americans lose their faith in representative democracy.
There’s another path, and that’s to recognize that Congress is flawed but that, as an institution, it needs upholding and shoring up, not stigmatizing. A robust, functional and assertive Congress is crucial to making our system work.
It needs to be able to keep an eye on the executive branch, advance an agenda based on its members’ understanding of what the country needs, police its members’ behavior, be the place where the cross-currents roiling the American community meet in constructive debate and in general play the muscular role our founders envisioned for it in policy-making.
It cannot do any of these things if it is filled with politicians who are adept at making themselves look good and the Congress look bad, or who care little about its institutional powers.
I’ve noticed something interesting as I have moved around the country during recent months: a lot of people seem to have caught on to this. They express disappointment that Congress for decades has allowed the White House to dominate it. They fret that the expansion of presidential power sought by the Bush administration has gone too far and are bewildered by Congress’ timidity in pushing its own powers.
This is an extremely promising development — if it translates into an electorate willing to look carefully at how congressional candidates propose to set Congress back on track, and it begins to wake up Congress as a whole.
Make no mistake, this is not just a matter of political theory or a topic for a good speech on the importance of constitutional checks and balances. It has to be practiced in the day-to-day workings of Capitol Hill.
If you ask candidates whether they are in favor of reasserting congressional authority, the answer will almost certainly be yes. But that’s not enough. What you want to know is whether they’ll be aggressive in shaping the federal budget; whether they believe Congress has a strong voice, along with the president’s, in declaring war or pursuing military intervention overseas; whether they’ll work with their colleagues to develop and fight for Congress’s own agenda, and not simply respond to the president’s; whether they see that getting Congress’s ethical house in order is crucial to building its institutional strength, not just a matter of political expediency; whether they understand that Congress must be a truly deliberative and consensus-building body, not a place where the majority ramrods its wishes through without debate; and whether they understand that violating longstanding and fair procedure — by passing sprawling, multi-topic omnibus bills, for instance — merely hands the president more power.
If they get all this, even if you disagree on a few policy issues, I hope you’ll consider voting for them. If they’re oblivious and seem unconcerned about Congress’ loss of power, then it’s worth asking whether they really understand our constitutional system of separate and co-equal branches of government and the need to revive Congress’s vigor and dynamism.
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.