I suspect that most members of Congress will want to forget the year that just ended.
The institution that symbolizes our democracy finished 2011 plumbing depths of unpopularity it has never experienced before. Its low approval ratings set records — suggesting, as Gallup put it, “that 2011 will be remembered as the year in which the American public lost much of any remaining faith in the men and women they elect and send off to Washington to represent them.”
The poor jobs picture, the lurching from one brink-of-disaster deadline to the next, the polarization that keeps the parties from working together, the widespread sense that Congress is so dysfunctional it cannot meet the nation’s challenges — all play a role. So, I believe, does the nation’s political polarization: Whatever action Congress takes, some large portion of the electorate will disagree with it.
These are all valid ways of judging Congress, but they are not the only way. Every year, the Center on Congress at Indiana University polls a group of congressional scholars on how they think the institution is doing, and one of the challenges we face is devising a set of questions that meaningfully probe Congress’s performance. It’s not as easy as you’d think.
The historic mission of the Congress has been to maintain freedom, a goal whose achievement is impossible to measure in a year’s — or even a few years’ — time. Moreover, a well-functioning Congress has to operate on many fronts: as the legislative body representing a diverse nation; as a counter-balance to the president; as an overseer of the federal bureaucracy; as a forger of policy; as two separate institutions (Senate and House) that have to find common ground and uphold processes that allow each one to perform effectively. In other words, you have to look deeply at how Congress is operating in order to get a well-rounded picture.
The first of Congress’s responsibilities is to protect its constitutional role as a strong, co-equal branch of government. It must stand apart from and serve as a check upon the excesses of presidential power. So how well is it safeguarding its powers from presidential encroachment? Does it live up to its proper role in determining the federal budget? How’s it doing at oversight of the executive branch? Is it generating meaningful, politically sustainable policy alternatives, or just sitting back and letting the White House take all the political risks? Does it set the national agenda, or act timidly? And does it safeguard the war powers assigned it by the Constitution?
Its second great role is to represent the American people. This means making sure that all voices get a fair hearing and that diverse viewpoints play a part in crafting initiatives — all while safeguarding institutional practices that allow legislation to move forward in a timely manner. Just as important, does Congress spend its time on key issues facing the country, or instead let itself get diverted by partisan concerns or by issues of importance only to well-heeled special interests?
Third, in a country as politically and demographically varied as ours, negotiation and compromise are key to crafting legislation that can enjoy broad political support. To gauge whether Congress is following sound process, you would want to know several things. Are its leaders capable of working hard to forge a consensus? If they can’t, do conflicts over legislation represent substantive differences, or mere political game-playing? Does it balance careful deliberation with making decisions? Does it protect the rights of the minority and allow all points to be heard? Is it transparent — so that its members can be held accountable for their actions?
Fourth, does Congress set sufficiently high standards for its individual members? That means keeping excessive partisanship in check and making sure its members are behaving ethically. Are members well-educated on the issues they must decide and capable of educating their constituents on them — in substantive ways, not with platitudes?
And finally, how strong is the connection of members of Congress to their constituents back home? Do they understand their constituents and try to represent them in Washington? Do they make themselves accessible in a variety of settings, and speak out for their communities at times of need? Do they listen well and are they closely attuned to the core needs and interests of the people they represent?
All of these questions add up to how well Congress represents the interests of the American people, and as always, it does better on some than on others. Despite its obvious troubles, the picture is not entirely bleak. And I can’t help but believe that the more well-rounded our understanding of where Congress falls short and where it performs well, the better we can hold it to account.
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.