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Is Congress up to its duty?

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POSTED: April 1, 2009 12:31 p.m.
I arrived in Congress in 1965, as President Lyndon Johnson’s transformation of government was getting under way. It was an extraordinary time, as LBJ sent to Capitol Hill proposals for Medicare, Medicaid, aid to education, the Voting Rights Act and a host of other bills that reshaped the nation’s life. The United States was a different country by the time Congress finished.
We are at a juncture that may be as far-reaching and no less dramatic. With the economic crisis as a backdrop, President Barack Obama has sent to Capitol Hill a budget that places the government more thoroughly in American life than at any time in the past three decades, and eschews the anti-tax, anti-regulatory approach to public policy that has dominated recent decades. The White House has put Congress on notice that it intends to reform the health-care system, make fundamental improvements to education, and remake energy policy.
There is an important difference in the approaches taken by Johnson and Obama. Johnson gave Congress specific proposals, like the Medicaid bill and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He told Congress precisely what he wanted and then helped shape its response.
Obama, on the other hand, has given Congress the goals he wants to pursue and the concepts he intends to support, then left it up to lawmakers to craft the fine print.
Congress has a history of not dealing well with the big issues. Now it’s presented with a budget and a presidential agenda that offer no letup in big issues.  
How it will respond remains a question. No sooner had the president’s plans landed on Capitol Hill than legislators of both parties and powerful interest groups declared this or that provision badly flawed, seeming to reject the president’s proposals without consideration and debate. Meanwhile, there is a strong likelihood the leadership, as it has done far too often in recent years, will choose to deal with the issues before it by bundling them into omnibus legislation that permits very little deliberation and requires an up-or-down vote on a bill of gigantic size and complexity.
Congress has been given an extraordinary opportunity to live up to its constitutional responsibilities and to function effectively in the national interest. While its public standing has been improving of late, it remains damaged by the perception its members care more about catering to donors, playing partisan games and putting in a four-day workweek than they do about tackling the nation’s toughest challenges in a reasoned, comprehensive and fair way.
Congress is being asked by the president to address a far-reaching agenda. It can do so by reviving the tradition of open debate that enlightens the American people and allows its members to weigh the questions before them as they develop consensus, or it can give in to its recent habits of procedural expediency and partisan tactics. The test for Congress is clear. Let’s hope it chooses wisely.

Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.
 

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