There were plenty of reasons to be somber as we marked the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks recently. Honoring the lives lost and communities shattered on that day were foremost among them. But for many of us, there was also the worrying realization that Americans believe we are adrift, saddled with a political system that is ineffective at addressing the challenges that beset us.
Congress, in particular, has lost the faith of its constituents. In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, its approval rating jumped to above 80 percent. Now, according to a mid-August Gallup poll, that figure stands at an abysmal 13 percent, while public disapproval has reached a historic high of 84 percent. To borrow a term from the housing meltdown, Congress is deep underwater.
It has been years since Congress acted as if it took seriously its responsibility, as the separate and coequal branch of government envisioned in the Constitution, to make the country work. Yet that is precisely how it needs to behave at this moment — it should not require an attack on our shores to boost its public standing.
Removing the roadblocks to institutional effectiveness will take hard work. Congress has gotten its house in order before, however, and it can do so again.
It could start by addressing the filibuster rule, which effectively requires 60 votes in the Senate in order to move most legislation, a formidable hurdle in a closely divided Senate. In the name of efficiency, Congress routinely embraces giant omnibus bills which allow the leadership basically to undermine the deliberation, transparency, and accountability we expect and need in our system; it needs to return to the regular order developed by Congress over many decades.
The country also needs more robust congressional oversight into every nook and cranny of government, and a vigorous ethics system which enforces the basic rule that every member act in such a manner as to reflect credit on the institution.
A Congress seriously interested in effectiveness would pursue procedural fixes to reduce the excessive partisanship that too often paralyzes Capitol Hill. None of them are mysterious: redressing the outsized role of special-interest money in elections; reducing partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts; eliminating closed state primaries, which enable ideological activists to dominate elections; and wringing the intense partisanship of committee staffers out of the legislative process.
These “process” solutions only skirt a deeper problem, though. Our founders envisioned Congress as a co-equal branch of government, with the elevated standing both to critique and to form a partnership with the executive in making this nation strong and effective. Congress needs to live up to that constitutional role.
The noted historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once wrote that at heart, politics is about “the search for remedy” — finding a way to fix the problems that beset us. None of our challenges — not the debt ceiling, not the economy, not our entanglements overseas or our growing inequalities back home — are insurmountable. But they do require politics at its best: an honest effort to find remedies that are fair and lasting. We need members who think about how their proposals would work in the real world, and who try to build the broadest consensus possible, so that their proposals have a chance to advance solutions to our challenges.
This requires reconciling the manifold needs and interests of an extraordinarily diverse people. Despite all that unites us, we are also divided by differences in philosophy, background, and community. Congress is where those differences come together, which is often why debate there is — and should be— long and contentious. But diversity only explains conflict; it’s not an excuse for failing to overcome it.
It is not hard to find members on the Hill who speak for a defined narrow interest. It is much harder, though not impossible, to find members who search for a remedy, as opposed to a political position. We need more members who reflect the diversity of this great and varied country yet work to bring it together, not tear it asunder.
Turning Congress around will take some effort. But make no mistake. Congress can live up to the faith our Constitution and our democracy place in it. But we, as Americans, have to insist that the people we elect make this a priority. Congress has to want to change, and we as voters have a major role to play in helping to bring that about.
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.