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Change is constant in Congress

POSTED: May 6, 2009 10:19 a.m.
We think of Congress as immutable, a steadfast presence in American life since its first session in 1789. The inspiration we draw from the dome of the Capitol, the pull of a congressional hearing we know will change the course of history, the lofty statements on the floor of the House or Senate — these were as much a part of our grandparents’ time as they are of ours.
Yet after watching Congress carefully for nearly 45 years, I am struck as much by how it has changed as by how much has endured. In everything from where power lies and how it is wielded, to the procedures for running the institution, to how members like to operate, the Congress today is a different body from 40 years ago.
The most significant change has been its steady yielding of power to the White House. Our democracy was built on the core notion that the Congress, the president, and the judiciary would serve to check and balance one another. Yet there is no question today where the national agenda — from budget-making to the use of force — gets set. In deferring so often to the president Congress has become a much less powerful actor than the founders intended.
Power within Congress has shifted, too. The leadership — especially the majority leadership in both houses — has consolidated its hold on the institution with ever larger staffs and budgets, making it harder for other voices to be heard. Not coincidentally, the influence of campaign money, and therefore of those who raise it and those who determine where it will be spent, has taken on vastly greater importance than it held four decades ago. So, too, has the presence and influence of lobbyists, leading many Americans to feel that they have no real voice in the policy-making process.
Even so, Americans’ relationship with Congress has changed in many ways for the better. Though the average member of Congress represents about 200,000 more people today than he or she did in the 1960s, Congress today better reflects the diversity of America. It includes more women, more members of racial and ethnic minorities, more people with different backgrounds. Congress is also a more open institution: Its proceedings are televised, its votes are widely published, its activities — especially in this day of instant communications — more readily scrutinized.
It is also more pressured. Congress confronts issues of a complexity that was unimaginable a few decades ago: global warming, terrorism, cyberwarfare, the spread of nuclear weapons, a vastly more complex and interwoven global economy.
Where the general attitude toward Washington once was “get off my back,” now there is intense pressure on Congress to “get government on my side,” whether through tax breaks, subsidies, or regulatory favoritism.
In other words, Congress may still be our indispensable institution, the place that makes this country a representative democracy, but it also an institution that continues to evolve, in ways both good and bad. It is under great stress at a time of national need. The challenge is to make it work better. Our representative democracy depends on it.

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.
 

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