A few weeks ago, the survey firm Public Policy Polling made headlines when it released a poll comparing Congress’s standing to a variety of unloved things. Respondents did prefer our national legislature to the ebola virus, but otherwise the news was grim: Americans, the survey suggested, have a lower opinion of Congress than of head lice, Genghis Khan, used-car salesmen, and root canals.
I’ll admit it: I chuckled, though I don’t really agree. Having experienced both, I put Congress well ahead of root canals.
Still, in the years since I left Capitol Hill my frustration with the institution I admired and loved has grown; watching it now is painful. Congress has shown a dispiriting unwillingness to reckon with tax reform, rein in the deficit, find ways to spur economic growth or make any of the other tough decisions that face it. When it does make a decision, it tends to limit its reach — thus, over and over, avoiding the real issues.
Its constant partisanship, lack of urgency in the face of looming fiscal threats, posturing and finger-pointing even at moments when the national interest clearly demands a resolution — all these have made it appear uninterested in actually governing.
Yet people do not run for Congress so they can become unpopular. They don’t go to Washington because they want to accomplish nothing. They don’t take the oath of office, surrounded by reminders of the distinguished men and women who came before them, just to disavow Congress’s rich history of accomplishment.
Rather, they get caught in a destructive cycle whose dynamics are often shaped by political forces out of their control — by the demands of party loyalty or the arm-twisting of caucus leaders, by the threats and blandishments of special interests or the fear of well-funded opposition in the next primary. The challenge facing members of Congress is to rise above all this, to find a way to reassert the values and aspirations that first brought them to national office.
How can they do this? I’m convinced that it comes down to attitude.
To begin, they have to put the country first. Not their party or their re-election or their political ambitions, but the nation’s best interest. The surest way I know to earn the respect of voters is to put responsible governance first.
In part, this means acting with the future in mind. Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address looked toward “our descendants to the thousandth and the thousandth generation.” That may be a longer time-frame than is politically realistic, but at the moment I’d even settle for just the thousandth and the thousandth day, which is more far-sighted than most members’ obsession with the next election. Americans care about their country’s future, and they want their representatives to do so, too.
This means that members of Congress need to accept responsibility for resolving the nation’s challenges, whether they’re in the majority or in the minority. Our country simply cannot survive the current reluctance to meet our problems head on or Capitol Hill’s tolerance for the sort of brinksmanship that leaves the nation on tenterhooks and difficult issues put off for another day.
Members have a responsibility to make the government work, and they need to square their shoulders and step up to it: to make decisions, to vote on the issues that need addressing — rather than on legislation designed to give them political cover or to pander to deep-pocketed interests — and to move the country forward.
To do this, they will have to work out their differences — through skillful negotiation, patience, understanding, accommodation, and compromise. Being a member does not mean treating adversaries as enemies to be defeated and humiliated; they are colleagues with whom one must cooperate on the larger goal of searching for a remedy to the challenges that beset the country. Focusing on the facts — rather than on scoring ideological points — and working together to build consensus based on those facts is the only way our representatives will be able to take on the responsibilities Americans expect of them.
That is what Americans are looking for. And that is what Congress needs to deliver if it wants to be more popular than root canals.
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.