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March 20, 2014

OPINION: Fixing Congress

By LEE H. HAMILTON

These are hard times for Congress. Its approval ratings have seen a bump from their historic lows of a few months ago, but it’s a small one. Our representative democracy’s keystone political institution is widely derided as ineffective, unproductive, irrelevant, and sadly out of touch.

It is no coincidence that this comes while Congress has developed a taste for so-called “unorthodox lawmaking,” wandering far outside its traditional procedures. That’s why I would argue that as grim as things seem now, there is a fix for what ails Congress.

Broadly speaking, it involves congressional process. Let me quote John Dingell, the canny U.S. House member from Michigan who recently announced his retirement. “I’ll let you write the substance,” he once told a House Judiciary subcommittee, “...you let me write the procedure, and I’ll screw you every time.” In legislative bodies, whoever controls the process controls the result. If it wants to restore itself, Congress must make its processes exemplary and fair.

Members should begin by opening the floor to more amendments. At the moment amendments are tightly limited, if not banned outright, in an effort by the leadership to control the outcome. This restricts debate, impedes the free flow of ideas, and strengthens leaders while disempowering ordinary members.

The leadership also needs to give up its concentrated power and hand more authority to congressional committees. However worthy congressional leaders may be, they cannot do the job that the committee system was designed for: holding hearings, inquiring deeply into issues, eliciting facts, laying out options, arguing over amendments, finding the common ground needed to advance legislation.

The simple truth is that members of Congress are there primarily to legislate — not to raise money or score political points on television. Yet Congress seems to devote less and less time to crafting and passing legislation; it is losing the habit and the skills, and its work product suffers. It needs to work harder at the job Americans expect.

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