Congress, too, can set the agenda
Posted: Tuesday, November 4, 2008 10:18 pm
By LEE H. HAMILTON
Once he is sworn in on Jan. 20, our new president will command all eyes. After a long campaign in which he and his rival traded policy prescriptions and accusations about their respective flaws, the country will be anxious to see the White House’s agenda. Congress, it seems safe to say, will be an afterthought, its views given weight only insofar as they might hinder or abet the president’s plans.
And really, why should they matter? The 435 House members and 35 senators who ran in November’s elections present a cacophony of views — they’re liberal and conservative, from large states and small, representing every conceivable kind of American voter. It’s impossible for them to speak with one voice or with the institutional heft to be found at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Moreover, Congress long ago abandoned the practice of trying to put forward its own plans, and Americans have certainly lost the habit of looking to it for leadership. Even Congressional Quarterly, a magazine whose reason for being is to parse every nuance of life on Capitol Hill, carried a cover story a month before the election entitled, “11 Issues for the Next President.” It said, “The winner of the Nov. 4 election will face the most difficult roster of top-tier issues in a generation while trying to restore the country’s faith in its government.”
On everything from the economy to taxes, energy and our nation’s infrastructure needs, it suggested, Congress would be left to react, not to create.
While this picture certainly fits our national expectations, there are two problems with it: It’s not how things are supposed to be; and it’s not healthy for the United States.
The Constitution sets out a very clear expectation that Congress and the president are to be colleagues — equals — in determining the course of the country.
And there is a compelling reason for this. The very forces that make it difficult for Congress to speak with one voice, especially its members’ closeness to the diverse constituencies from which they hail, also provide Congress with a fine-textured understanding of national concerns and sentiment.
Better than any other part of the federal government, Congress reflects the regional, ideological, economic and cultural diversity of the United States.
This is crucial to crafting good policy, policy that is consistent, relevant and sustainable over the long term. Such policy springs not from a single opinion about what’s needed, but from sharp analysis and civil dialogue among people with different points of view, values, and experiences.
Congress, in other words, is as indispensable an actor in laying out a national policy agenda as is the president.
That it has chosen not to play that role in recent decades — with a few exceptions, like last year’s boost in the minimum wage — has turned it into a reactive body with very little control over the policy debate; he who sets the agenda, after all, controls the discussion and usually the results, and recent presidents have been extremely forceful about putting forth both a domestic and foreign agenda. It has been politically easier for members of Congress to let the president take the lead, especially since it is very hard work to craft an agenda that a majority of both houses can agree upon.
Given this history and the degeneration of Congress’s policy-crafting muscles, it seems unreasonable to expect that Congress will suddenly set about advancing its own agenda for every problem, foreign and domestic, that assails us. Yet surely it’s in a position to act more forcefully than in the recent past. If it wishes to fulfill its constitutional role and rebuild its standing as an institution that commands the respect of the American people — and, more important, earns legitimacy as a branch of government — it should certainly start to put forward initiatives to which the president can respond.
Congress needs to be a more assertive presence in Washington generally, even if it does it piecemeal rather than in a comprehensive way, and it certainly needs to flex its policy-making muscles more frequently than it does now.
How might it do so? I’d suggest that the party caucuses in each house — that is, the meetings at which Democrats and Republicans gather to work on their own marching orders — would be the appropriate place to start. Democrats in Congress ought to see it as their responsibility to put forward their own agenda for the nation, even if it’s only in a few arenas; so should Republicans.
The parties might even find some common ground. And in the debates over what these agendas should be, and then the conversation with the White House as they’re moved forward, Congress might just find its own voice. That would be a good thing not only for its members, but for us all.
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.