If you believe in representative democracy, as I do, this has been a dispiriting time. At a crucial moment for our nation’s economy, many Americans look at Congress and see posturing, not a serious effort to create jobs or to get our fiscal house in order. They’ve responded with terrible approval ratings; the latest, from NBC and The Wall Street Journal, showed some three-quarters of Americans disapproving of the job Congress is doing.
These dismal numbers have become so commonplace that most people in Washington react with a shrug. But our form of representative democracy places Congress at its center, as the voice of the American people and the guardian of the democratic process; when it is met with such dissatisfaction, the response should not be indifference, but a determination to improve its standing. We may have the best form of government we know, but we must always strive to make it better.
The basic features of our system have served this nation admirably over more than two centuries, but they can be abused. Democracy stokes passions, naturally creating robust debate and sharp-elbowed political competition. But it also leads to excesses we should address.
For instance, our system is driven by a healthy competition between the parties. But members of Congress are too willing to focus on scoring political points, at the expense of searching for a remedy for our challenges. You see this in their slim legislative record at a time of enormous challenge, and in the countless positions in the administration that have gone unfilled; the opposition has blocked nominees and simply declared that at least for some positions it will not support anyone President Obama nominates.
Similarly, both the Founders and earlier generations of Congress developed procedures to ensure that runaway majorities could not trample on the rights and wishes of the minority. But it has become terribly easy, especially in the Senate, for a handful of legislators — or even just one recalcitrant lawmaker — to gum up the works on behalf of some pet cause.
Congress has taken up plenty of space on the news pages so far this year, but it can point to very little of significance that it has actually accomplished. Both sides in Congress seem all too ready to take endless votes on bills that have no chance of being enacted, but have been placed on the calendar for the sole purpose of requiring the opposition party to cast a difficult vote. This sort of game-playing is hardly new, but it comes at a cost: legislators have limited time and energy, and when both are taken up with trivialities and political shenanigans, it means that important work does not get done.
To his credit, the Speaker of the House has tried to limit inconsequential legislation — resolutions honoring this or that constituent — but politically tinged maneuvering still goes on. A common complaint in the congressional cloakrooms is to ask in frustration, “Why are we working on this trivial matter when we’re surrounded by so many serious challenges?”
In a representative democracy, of course, part of the point is for legislators to represent particular interests, especially the needs of their constituents. That is how the great diversity of this nation is given voice on Capitol Hill. But this can go too far. Too many members have adopted habits that might help their re-election chances, but do little to solve problems.
They pander to powerful people or groups; take their marching orders from the poll of the day, not their own intellectual compass; listen to their biggest contributors, not to the broad cross-section of their districts; and engage too often in short-term thinking, looking to the instant gratification of the next election or even the next poll, rather than the country’s needs a decade out.
All these excesses of democracy contribute to Americans’ lack of faith in Congress and undermine our system of representative government. The ideal for members is to conduct themselves as politicians and legislators so as to reflect credit on the institution they serve, and earn the respect — if not always the approval — of their countrymen. The record at the moment suggests they are falling short.
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.