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Fixing Congress

By Lee H. Hamilton

March 25, 2014

These are hard times for Congress. Our democracy’s keystone political institution is widely derided as ineffective, unproductive, irrelevant, and sadly out of touch.


It is no coincidence that at the same time, Congress has developed a taste for so-called “unorthodox lawmaking,” wandering far outside its traditional procedures. That’s why I would argue that as grim as things seem now, there is a fix for what ails Congress.


Broadly speaking, it involves congressional process. In legislative bodies, whoever controls the process controls the result. If it wants to restore itself, Congress must make its processes exemplary and fair.


They should begin by opening the floor to more amendments. At the moment amendments are tightly limited, if not banned outright, in an effort by the leadership to control the outcome. This restricts debate, impedes the free flow of ideas, and strengthens leaders while disempowering ordinary members.


The leadership also needs to give up its concentrated power and hand more authority to congressional committees to hold hearings and inquire deeply into issues. Congress seems to devote less and less time to crafting and then passing legislation; it is losing the habit and the necessary skills, and its work product suffers. It needs to work harder at the job Americans expect of it.


To make this possible, the Senate should do more of its business by simple majority vote of the senators present and voting. It’s important for the majority to assure fair procedures that take minority views fully into account, but at the end of the day Congress needs to work, not be hamstrung by loyalty to a filibuster rule that has outlived its purpose.


Other key processes also need mending. The confirmation of presidential appointees is absurdly slow, seriously jeopardizing a president’s ability to govern. The congressional ethics committees are dormant. Travel privileges are routinely abused. The crucial oversight process has become a political sideshow. Campaign expenditures should be limited and donors should be disclosed.


The point of all this is that Congress is listing, but it can right itself. It may not be able to tackle all of these proposed fixes at once, but each is within its power. Members should quit throwing up their hands and protesting that they can’t do anything about their own institution’s problems. It’s their job to put Congress back in working order and they have the power to do it.


— 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.