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. 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 played a role.
These are 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. 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, coequal branch of government. It must stand apart from and serve as a check upon the excesses of presidential power. So how well does it oversee the executive branch, and is it generating meaningful, politically sustainable policy alternatives, or just sitting back and letting the White House take all the political risks?
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.
Third, in a country as politically and demographically varied as ours, sound process, negotiation and compromise are key to crafting legislation that can enjoy broad political support. 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?
Fourth, does Congress set sufficiently high standards for its individual members? Do they keep partisanship in check and behave ethically?
And finally, do they maintain strong connections to their constituents back home? Do they make themselves accessible in a variety of settings, listen well, and speak out for their communities and constituents at times of need?
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.