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How Congress Works and Why You Should Care by Lee H. Hamilton


Rating: (Recommended)


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Former Indiana congressman Lee Hamilton’s new book, How Congress Works and Why You Should Care, is unlikely to become a best seller. After all, we all learned in high school civics about how a bill becomes a law. Thanks to Hamilton, interested readers can get a plain-spoken inside look at how congress really works, and what it accomplishes for all of us. Often critical of current practices, Hamilton tries hard to get readers to become enthusiastic about political processes and public service. Let’s hope his visibility as vice chair of the 9/11 commission might bring some attention to this book, and help some readers become engaged in matters that have huge impact.

Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter 2, “The Impact of Congress,” pp. 26-37:


When I was in Congress, I would often start off my local public meetings by asking whether anyone could name a federal program that worked well. Usually not a single hand went up—even when the audience was filled with people who received Social Security checks every month, who drove to the meeting on the interstate highway, or who had attended the local university with the help of federal student loans. The response of my constituents was fairly typical. In a recent poll, when people were asked what they thought was Congress’s most important ac­complishment that year, more than three-fourths responded: “Don’t know.”

                                                                                                                      I recognize that it is commonplace to dismiss Congress as largely irrelevant or a bumbling institution that cannot do anything right. Yet people who have served in it typically come away with a different view. Claude Pepper, whose service in Congress representing the state of Florida spanned six decades, once remarked: “The govern­ment of the United States belongs to the people of this land and whenever their troubles and their disasters and their needs impel its use, it is available. It is the mightiest institution on the face of the Earth, and it can be a hand that will lift up the people if they call upon it.”

                                                                                                                            This chapter will explore this question of how much of an impact the work of Congress has on people’s lives today.


Congress and the Fabric of Our Lives

Like many Americans, I watched the electrifying march of the U.S. women’s soccer team to victory in the 1999 World Cup with a mixture of awe and pride. I was taken, of course, by the ath­leticism and skill shown by our players, but I was equally delighted by something most Americans probably didn’t recognize: the role that Congress had played in what I was watching.

It has been more than thirty years since we passed the measure known as Title IX. I was still a relatively junior member of the House when we voted on the bill, and although the rhetoric on the floor was high-minded and full-blown, as it tends to be at such moments, I’m not sure anyone fully grasped the depth of the changes we were enacting. It takes nothing away from the extraordinary accomplish­ments of the women on the soccer field to say that they and those who celebrate their accomplishments could thank Congress, in part, for the path that led them there.

“Title IX” refers to a law passed in 1972, a set of education amend­ments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It requires that women be given an equal opportunity to participate in all programs run by colleges and schools that receive federal funds. One of its results, the full measure of which we are just beginning to enjoy, is the explosion of women’s sports. In the wake of the U.S. soccer players’ victory, President Clinton referred to them as “Daughters of Title IX,” and he was right.

It has been popular of late to view Congress as full of people who love the limelight and look out for themselves but who contribute little to the national well-being. Not long before I left Congress, for example, a group of constituents visiting my Indiana office told me exactly that: Congress has nothing to do with our daily lives, they informed me, except when it wants to tax or regulate us. As it happened, I knew these people fairly well, so I responded by asking them a few questions—about the interstate highway they took to my office, the once-polluted river they crossed over, and the bank or grocery store or pharmacy they were going to next. They soon saw where I was headed. Their lives had been profoundly affected by Congress. If you know how to look, I suggested, you can see Congress’s contributions all around you.

Just what those contributions ought to be, of course, is the subject of serious debate, and rightly so. Americans have this conversation all the time, in Washington and at political gatherings around the country, and it is how we remain on course as a nation.

But too often of late we’ve gone beyond that, to thinking of Congress as an irrelevant institution with little or no connection to our everyday lives. So as you hear about the work of Congress on all the issues facing it—tax cuts, national security, the federal budget, health care—think about how they might affect your life person­ally instead of dismissing the debates as esoteric and meaningless. What if Congress cuts federal funding for basic research into high technology and other sciences? Will it just be trimming unneeded fat from the budget, or will it be doing away with work that could undergird our growth in the twenty-first century—and possibly, a few years down the road, provide you or someone in your family with a job? Or think about health care: Should Congress continue to help researchers who are looking for a way to cure AIDS or breast cancer or any of the other diseases that cause us to suffer? Or edu­cation: Should Congress find ways of helping parents choose the best school for their children, even if it means using public funds to allow children to attend parochial schools? These are hardly ques­tions that are irrelevant to our daily lives.

But this is what Congress does. When it takes up issues like the education of our children, or the quality of the water we drink, or our ability to care for our parents as they age—or whether women should be treated equally by college programs—it is doing its best to reflect and to improve the quality of our lives as individuals and the strength of our nation. So as the budget and other issues come up for debate in Washington, and those of us who pay attention to such things start discussing them with our friends and neighbors in community halls and meeting places, we should be careful about falling into the trap of believing that nothing is at stake.



Government’s Greatest Endeavors

Skepticism toward government has always been a healthy strain in American thinking. The Constitution, with its emphasis on dividing government as a way of checking official power, is one reflection of that view. In recent decades, we have seen the rela­tive optimism about government of the early 196os give way to a broader pessimism, with many believing that government creates more problems than it solves.

Government is certainly not perfect. There are inefficiencies, mistakes, and blunders. We should not overlook these, but neither should they form the overwhelming impression of what govern­ment does. A recent study on government’s greatest achievements over the past half century reminds us that there is another side to the story.

The study developed a list of more than five hundred major laws passed by Congress in the past fifty years and then surveyed hundreds of college professors, asking them to rank the greatest achievements. The national problems and challenges that spawned these laws were as complex and difficult as the legislative solutions themselves. High on the list of accomplishments were rebuilding Europe after World War II through the Marshall Plan; containing communism and winning the cold war; maintaining the world’s greatest defense system; expanding equal access and the right to vote; reducing the incidence of deadly or crippling diseases; increas­ing the stability of financial institutions and markets; improving air and water quality; protecting wilderness; providing financial secu­rity in retirement through Social Security and Medicare; expanding foreign markets for U.S. goods; promoting space exploration; and increasing arms control and disarmament.

As I look through this list, what strikes me is how our lives are better and safer in many ways because of government activity. Granted, an equally interesting study could be done on govern­ment’s greatest failures over the past half century. Yet the report is still a helpful and all too infrequent reminder that as a nation we have come far in seeking to end difficult and deep-seated problems both here and abroad. And that’s the key point. America rightly emphasizes individual values and independence, but when epidemic disease threatens our health, when dangers lurk at our borders, when energy shortages develop, when foreign trade barriers harm our exports, or when business irregularities undermine investor confidence, part of the way to cope with these problems more ef­fectively is through action in Congress.

Certainly not every action by legislators is a blockbuster. Paul Douglas, the distinguished senator from Illinois, once commented that when he was elected to the Senate he came with the idea of saving the world. After a few years, he decided he would be content with saving the United States. After ten years in office he hoped he could save Illinois, and when he was leaving office he said he would settle for saving the Indiana Dunes.

The truth is, progress is usually made inch by inch. Issues often need to be revisited more than once, and setbacks are at least as common as triumphs. Yet as America faces a host of challenges in the twenty-first century, we need a broader public recognition that while government may be part of the problem, it is also part of the solution.


An Ordinary Day

From time to time, some major event comes along to re­mind us of how much we actually depend on the U.S. government. So it was that, after the Oklahoma City bombing and again after the September 11 attacks, public support for Congress and the federal government rose to its highest levels in years.

I’m always encouraged to see this support, but to my mind it misses a crucial point. Congress and the president aren’t just there on those days of crisis that are forever etched in our memory, nor do big-ticket items such as the military or homeland defense tell the whole story of government’s impact on Americans’ lives. Rather, working with the president, Congress has found many important ways to improve the quality of the average person’s life. Imagine an ordinary day, and I think you’ll be astounded at how much you can take for granted that your parents and grandparents could not.

Let’s start the moment you wake up in the morning. The radio/alarm clock that just went off? If you live in a rural area—or in a suburb that twenty years ago was farmland—you might give a thought to the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, which brought electric­ity to rural areas and promoted the development you’ve been able to enjoy. If you live in a city, congressionally mandated subsidies and regulations have played no small part in bringing that power to your electric outlets at a price you can afford.

Now that you’re up and brushing your teeth, it wouldn’t hurt to remember the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act, which put the govern­ment in the business of setting standards for drinking-water quality and making sure they’re met. We take the safety of the water that comes out of our taps for granted, but before that law’s passage, potential cancer-causing chemicals were showing up in cities’ water, lead from supply pipes was becoming a problem, and viral and bacte­riological contamination of water in smaller communities had been growing. While you’re standing in front of the mirror, it’s also worth remembering that a great deal of what we’ve learned about curing disease and remaining healthy has come from research funded by Congress. Moreover, if you wear cosmetics, take vitamins, or use medications, they have had to run a gauntlet of safety tests because at some point in the past, horror stories about their lack of safety led Congress to react. So, too, when you sit down at the breakfast table, you’re benefiting from meat and egg inspections carried out by the Department of Agriculture and agricultural programs run by the federal extension service in every county.

Now let’s say that, like most commuters in the country, you drive to work. Almost every safety feature of the car you drive, from the seat belts to the air bags to the quality of the tires, has been strengthened either by congressional mandate or by the activities of the National Transportation Safety Board. Your car’s fuel efficiency has grown because of congressional pressure on auto manufacturers, as has the quality of the air you breathe. Many of the roads you drive on, of course, were funded by Congress. And if you’re riding mass transit, federal subsidies played a big role in allowing the system to exist in the first place, and federal laws regulate its safety.

Once you get to work, it’s hard to turn around without encoun­tering some way in which the federal government has improved your lot in life. From improving workplace safety to prohibiting job discrimination, protecting your pension, or providing federal support for the industry you work in or the industries your job depends on, your working life has been shaped by congressional action. This is just as true of your education before you began work­ing. Your high school likely enjoyed federal support for everything from its library to its lunch program; the land grant college system was established by Congress, while other colleges and universities depend heavily on federal research grants; and your college tuition may well have been supported by a Pell grant or some other federal subsidy, as today some three-fourths of all student financial aid in the country is financed by the federal government.

Finally, let’s take a moment to think about all the things you do outside of work or home. If you enjoy parks, or like to boat on unpolluted rivers, or use community centers, or go online in the evening, or write checks from your local bank, or have some portion of your investments in stocks, or buy your children toys, or depend on food labeling to help you decide how to feed your family, you owe a moment’s thanks to Congress for the funding or the regulations or the organizations that make it possible.

To be sure, there will always be room for argument about how the federal government goes about these various responsibilities. Certainly the government doesn’t always get it right or do it in the most efficient manner. People can legitimately disagree about whether this federal agency has gone too far in regulating the work­place or that one has not gone far enough in protecting the environ­ment. But the impulse that lies behind federal action—the desire to produce a higher quality of life for all Americans—is much harder to argue with. There are issues of reliability, safety, and comfort you don’t even notice today, because at some point in the past, someone in Congress took note and did something about them.

Congress Does More Work than Meets the Eye

Make a joke about politicians bickering in Washington and a “do-nothing Congress,” and audiences will always chuckle and nod in agreement. This criticism is as old as the republic, and it is one that resonates. Harry Truman’s 1948 denunciation of the “do-noth­ing Congress” was the campaign slogan that fueled his come-from-behind victory over Thomas Dewey. Newspapers have been eager to reinforce the theme, with headlines like “The Do-Nothing Congress? It’s a Good Thing” and “Here’s to a Do-Nothing Congress.” Lately it seems that Americans’ historic skepticism toward Congress has evolved into something more sinister—sheer cynicism.

It is true that sometimes Congress doesn’t have a stunning record of accomplishment. It usually has a long list of unfinished business. Members themselves are acutely aware of this. Many times through­out the year—during weekends at home or holiday recesses—they appear before constituents and are asked simply: “What have you people in Congress accomplished?” Even leadership-supplied lists of talking points may not give legislators much help in coming up with anything close to a convincing response.

So I think it’s important to point out two things about Congress. First, it is capable of passing legislation with sweeping impact on the lives of Americans, particularly if there is a clear national consensus behind an idea or if action is imperative due to an external crisis. And second, even when Congress is not producing blockbuster bills, members are typically working on scores of other, less-publi­cized matters that sustain and improve the quality of life here and abroad.

It’s remarkable how quickly we forget that Congress has been involved in some big things in the last few years—from overhauling the welfare system and rewriting telecommunications laws to lib­eralizing trade laws and expanding NATO. If the current Congress passes few landmark bills, is it fair to say that members have failed to earn their pay? No. Some of their work involves laying the ground­work for future action on very complex matters that may take more than one Congress to resolve. The Clean Air Act and Immigration Reform Act, for instance, took multiple Congresses to complete due to their inherent complexity.

At other times, Congress is grappling with issues on which the citizens of the United States as well as the political parties strongly disagree, and achieving compromise is difficult. For most recent Congresses, voters stacked the deck against decisive legislative ac­tion by choosing a Congress led by one party and a White House occupied by the other. Congress’s critics say “politics” is to blame for the deadlock, but look at it another way: Parties in a divided govern­ment are laying out their arguments on issues to voters, asking them to deliver a verdict at the polis in November that could help resolve the impasse. That’s democracy in action. This process may be slow and frustrating, but democracy is like that sometimes—actually, much of the time. It’s a tough job trying to make public policy for our nation, especially in the absence of clear and decisive signals from the voters.

Reporters tend to make premature judgments midstream about “do-nothing” Congresses and then cover the high-profile issues that provoke legislative conflict. The inclination of the media is to show what’s wrong rather than what’s right. Far less attention is given to the routine but vital work that Congress does in other mat­ters, most notably the annual appropriations process, which funds the wide range of federal functions that touch the lives of every American. Every session of Congress passes legislation to fund the departments, agencies, and programs of the federal government, based on scrutiny of past performance. Moreover, dozens of bills are enacted that are bipartisan and noncontroversial in nature, and even though many may be more modest in scope, they still address specific problems and needs. And each year, Congress holds hear­ings to air major differences of opinion, oversees executive branch conduct, reviews treaties and presidential nominations, and ad­dresses constituent problems.

Some Congresses certainly may seem less productive than oth­ers. Yet it is still unusual for the legislative output in any Congress to fall much below four hundred new bills passed and signed into law, and rarely does Congress adjourn without enacting at least a handful of major new laws over its two-year cycle. Members, after all, recognize that they are legislators and their responsibility is to produce. Even when a Congress doesn’t earn a big place in the history books, more is going on in the Congress than is often recognized.



A Balanced View of Congress

When I was in Congress, a curious thing would hap­pen several times a year. A group of financial professionals would visit my office, sit down with me, and ask for some small change to the laws affecting them. What was strange about this was not that they were lobbying me—lots of people did that—but how they did so. Most groups, when they get a chance to meet a member of Congress, are curious about lots of things, especially the big issues: the economy, the deficit, foreign affairs. This group, though, only wanted to talk about the one seemingly minor change affecting their profession, with very technical legislation and very specific language in mind. Once that was done, they would go on to the next congressional office.

Now, they were doing nothing improper. But their lack of inter­est in the bigger picture struck me. When professional groups focus narrowly on their own interests, it’s usually a sign that Congress needs to weigh their proposals carefully and look at the broader national interest. Sometimes, though, Congress fails to do this. When that happens, the results can be painful: Witness the recent corporate scandals coming after Congress’s indulgent treatment of the financial and accounting communities.

This is worth remembering, because it hints at a reason why Congress can make mistakes. Critics of our national legislature often try to paint it as aloof from the cares of Americans, a distant and unapproachable institution. In fact, the opposite is true: Congress is highly responsive to pressure. Sometimes that pressure comes from all directions, as people in every walk of life weigh in on a matter they care about deeply; sometimes it comes from a single source that no one else much notices.

In many cases, this process has produced laws and innova­tions of which we can rightly be proud. But sometimes it results in Congress approving legislation that doesn’t pass the test of time. Our founders made Congress a deliberative body in which legislation can take months and even years to pass in large part because they were aware of this and wanted to make it difficult for Congress to head off in a misguided direction. Even so, it happens.

In fact, it’s not hard to come up with a long list of congressional actions—or cases of inaction—that with hindsight look quite unfor­tunate. Take this country’s history of mistreating Native Americans through policies that were set by Congress. High protective tariffs in the 193os, passed by Congress to protect various U.S. industries, deepened and lengthened the Great Depression. Prohibition passed in 1919, only to be repealed a decade and a half—and many violent episodes—later. Our failure after World War I to ratify the treaty setting up the League of Nations stemmed from Congress’s decision not to engage the world through an international organization, a judgment that in retrospect may have helped usher in World War II. In the past ten years, Congress has frequently sidestepped difficult issues, doing little about the large number of Americans without health insurance, the long-term threats to the solvency of Social Security, and our dependence on foreign energy sources.

There are plenty of reasons Congress gets things wrong. Sometimes its workload is so heavy that issues don’t get the thor­ough consideration they need. Sometimes the questions it takes up are so complex, and the competing interests are so diverse, that honest attempts at legislating a solution will fail. Sometimes there are political calculations or trade-offs that produce less-than-per­fect results. And sometimes Congress is simply trying to develop policies that it thinks reflect the interests and desires of specific groups of people, yet do not serve the interests of all the people. It is a reminder that Congress—for whatever reason—makes mistakes, even with procedures and motivations that in other circumstances can produce solid results.

One of the most enduring features of the legislative process is that issues are revisited again and again. Even when Congress acts in the right way—such as passing Title IX to ensure that women are treated fairly in college programs and athletics—it still needs to go back later to make sure everything is working properly. Hence the appropriate review recently of whether Title IX has had any unintended consequences on men’s athletics, exploring whether any adjustments or refinements might be needed. The same is true when Congress makes a mistake and gets something wrong. It needs to go back to the issue again and again, reassessing the options, try­ing to develop a sounder policy. All of this reinforces the point that the work of Congress is never settled once and for all but is always being revisited and refined.

How Congress Works would be a great graduation gift for a young adult who should have learned this in school, but probably didn’t. It’s also a great reminder for those of us who are often discouraged by political polarization that there are ways to work together for the common good.

Steve Hopkins, April 23, 2004


ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Congress Works.htm


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