It’s depressing to read poll after poll highlighting Americans’ utter disdain for Congress. But it’s my encounters with ordinary citizens at public meetings or in casual conversation that really bring me up short. In angry diatribes or in resigned comments, people make clear their dwindling confidence in both politicians and the institution itself.
With all Congress’s imperfections — its partisanship, brinksmanship and exasperating inability to legislate — it’s not hard to understand this loss of faith. Yet as people vent their frustration, I hear something else as well. It is a search for hope. They ask, almost desperately sometimes, about grounds for renewed hope in our system. Here’s why I’m confident that we can do better.
Let’s start with a point that should be obvious, but that people rarely notice: Our expectations are too high. In part, this is our elected officials’ fault: they over-promise and under-perform. They set the bar high — promising strong leadership, a firm hand on the legislative tiller, and great policy accomplishments — then usually fail to clear it.
Which should come as no surprise. Congress is not built for efficiency or speediness. On almost every issue, progress comes in increments. The future of the American health care system may appear to hang on the debate raging these days about the Affordable Care Act, but this is just the latest installment of a long-running fight that began even before the creation of Medicare and Medicaid almost five decades ago.
Congress deals with complex issues over many years and, sometimes, dozens of pieces of legislation. Focusing on any one moment in our legislative history is to miss the slow but undeniable advance of progress on Capitol Hill.
I also tend to be more patient with congressional leaders than many people who share their frustrations with me. Our political leaders confront a terribly difficult political environment: the country is both deeply and evenly divided along partisan and ideological lines. Getting 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate can be a punishing task. It takes skill, competence, and a great deal of passion to make progress in this kind of environment — especially when those in Congress who are dedicated to finding a way forward have to face colleagues who do not appear to want the system to work.
This brings me to a third point. If 50 years of watching Congress closely have taught me anything, it’s to wait until the end of a congressional session to see what members actually accomplish. Despite all the bickering, roadblocks, delays, and grandstanding, Congress can often pass significant legislation by the end of a session, even if it can’t do everything we expect of it.
And members of Congress are good politicians. Most try hard to understand what the people want, and try to bring about meaningful change, at least within their ideological framework. It may take a while, but Congress in the end responds to public sentiment. That is why it will pass the government’s basic funding bills this year, having learned from the public outrage over last year’s government shutdown.
Finally, Congress has proven over its long history that even in the most difficult circumstances it can be astoundingly productive. The very first Congress, meeting at a time of enormous political uncertainty and financial trouble, was able to firm up the new government’s structure and set the course for the nation’s future.
At one of the darkest times in our recent history, during the height of the Watergate scandal — when tensions between Congress and the White House and between Democrats and Republicans were no less pointed than they are now — Congress and President Nixon were still able to collaborate on the Federal Aid Highway Act, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization, the Endangered Species Act, the Legal Services Corporation Act, an overhaul of the farm subsidy program, and an increase in the minimum wage.
Congress often has risen above periods of great contention. It possesses a resilience that is obvious from the perspective of decades. Building on that search for hope in our system, and on the long historical record, Americans have good reason to believe that Congress can and will do better.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.