I arrived in Congress in 1965, just as President Lyndon Johnson’s transformation of the U.S. government was getting under way. It was an extraordinary time, as LBJ sent up to Capitol Hill his proposals for Medicare, Medicaid, aid to elementary and secondary education, the Voting Rights Act, and a host of other bills that reshaped Washington and its place in the nation’s life. The United States was a different country by the time Congress finished.
We are at a juncture that may be as far-reaching and no less dramatic. With the economic crisis as a backdrop, President Obama has sent to Capitol Hill a budget that places the government more thoroughly in American life than at any time in the past three decades, and eschews the anti-tax, anti-regulatory approach to public policy that has generally predominated in recent decades.
The White House has put Congress on notice that it intends to reform the health-care system, make fundamental improvements to public education, and remake national energy policy. These changes are necessary, it contends, to keep the U.S. economy strong and prosperous.
There is an important difference in the approaches taken by the two presidents, Johnson and Obama. Enjoying the momentum built by his landslide victory in the 1964 elections, Johnson gave Congress specific proposals, like the Medicaid bill and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He told Congress precisely what he wanted and then helped shape its response.
President Obama, on the other hand, has given Congress the goals he wants to pursue and the concepts he intends to support, then left it up to lawmakers to craft the fine print. As the New York Times put it recently, he is “taking a gamble in outsourcing the drafting of his agenda’s details” to Congress.
This is not just a leap of faith on the president’s part, however. Given the recent past, it also presents Congress with an exacting test of its ability to function effectively and produce policies that serve the American people well.
Congress has a history of not dealing well with the big issues. Now it’s presented with a budget and a presidential agenda that offer no letup in big issues. Its challenge is two-fold: to act at a time of crisis and in an economy that’s being reshaped by the day; and, despite the pressure to act quickly, to act in a manner that allows for the deliberation and consensus-building that uphold the democratic process.
How it will respond remains an open question. No sooner had the president’s plans landed on Capitol Hill than legislators of both parties and powerful interest groups declared this or that provision badly flawed, seeming to reject the president’s proposals without open-minded consideration and debate.
Meanwhile, there is a strong likelihood that the leadership, as it has done far too often in recent years, will choose to deal with the issues before it by bundling them into omnibus legislation that permits very little deliberation and requires an up-or-down vote on a bill of gigantic size and complexity. This may be efficient, but it is hardly democratic.
Congress has been given an extraordinary opportunity to live up to its constitutional responsibilities and to function effectively in the national interest.
While its public standing has been improving of late, it remains damaged by the perception its members care more about catering to donors, playing partisan games, and putting in a three- or four-day workweek than they do about tackling the nation’s toughest challenges in a reasoned, comprehensive, and fair way.
Now, at a time when Americans are closely tuned in to events in Washington, Congress is being asked by the president to address a far-reaching agenda. It can do so by reviving the tradition of open debate that enlightens the American people and allows its members to weigh the questions before them as they develop consensus, or it can give in to its recent habits of procedural expediency and partisan tactics. The test for Congress is clear. Let’s hope it chooses wisely.
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.