Congress and the US Constitution’s 225th Anniversary

There’s a major political event approaching this fall, and though I have no doubt it will be overshadowed by the elections, I hope you’ll carve out some time for it anyway. On September 17, we’ll observe the 225th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.

It’s the document that set everything in motion, of course, creating the carefully balanced, three-branch representative government that we’ve come to take for granted. But 225 years is a long time, and it’s instructive to reflect on what’s happened since that piece of parchment was signed.

I’m thinking in particular of Congress, which the Framers considered to be so important they put it first, beginning with Article I, Section 1: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.” That deceptively simple sentence conceals many months of debate and hard thought over the size, shape, and role of the new nation’s legislative branch.

The Framers wanted Congress to be the engine of law and policy in the United States. Fearful of replicating the monarchy from which they’d won their freedom, they wanted to keep the presidency from becoming too powerful, and so they created a powerful Congress. They went on to give it the authority to declare war, enact taxes, and set the budget.

They also wanted to be certain that the voices of the American people had a prominent place in the legislature’s deliberations, and that debate, consultation, and a thorough airing of views were part and parcel of what Congress did. They did not believe that a single chief executive could represent the priorities and desires of a diverse nation — even if, in that era, diversity among voters consisted more of regional and state interests than the multiple dissimilarities that mark our nation today.

For that reason, Congress was the keystone of republican government; the president — as George Washington insisted — was there to carry out legislative intention. Congress was the fount of policy leadership, a body that in the Framers’ minds should be robust, capable, adept at seeking information and opinions from around the nation, reaching a consensus on a course of action, deciding how to enact it, and then moving on.

For periods in our country’s history, especially in its early years and in the years leading up to the Civil War, Congress did, indeed, play the leading role the Framers envisioned. Congress today — the “broken branch,” as two prominent congressional scholars called it a few years ago — doesn’t even come close.

It is now a reactive body, hampered by partisanship and ideology, lacking creativity, focused less on policy leadership than on catering to constituents and to those who can help its members get re-elected. The central actor in American government today is the president, who regardless of party has become an aggressive and powerful figure. Even on those issues that the Constitution explicitly assigns it — war, taxes, the budget — Congress either defers to the president or ties itself up in knots waiting for his leadership.

Everyone understands that 2012 is not 1787. Though the Framers themselves lived in tumultuous times, the crises that demanded firm, coherent leadership — and that would abet the shift of power to the presidency — lay in the future.

Yet I fail to see how the Framers’ reasoning — that in a diverse democracy, power ought to rest with the representatives closest to the people — is out of date. And I see no reason to consider unfashionable their concern for a vigorous, capable legislative branch with the ability to gather up the nation’s many strands of ideology and interest and from them weave consensus and leadership.

Quite the contrary. By any measure, our nation is poorer because Congress is not functioning as the strong, co-equal branch of government the Constitution envisioned. As we observe this milestone anniversary, it’s worth a pause to honor the Framers’ insight and wisdom, and to regret Congress’s inability to live up to their ideals.

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.

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