At a public gathering the other day, someone asked me how I’d sum up my views on Congress. It was a good question, because it forced me to step back from worrying about the current politics of Capitol Hill and take a longer view.
Congress, I said, does some things fairly well. Its members for the most part want to serve their constituents and the country. They may be ambitious — it’s hard to be a successful politician if you’re not — but they’re not motivated primarily by personal interest. Most are people of integrity who have chosen to try to advance the national interest and are willing to work within our agitated political environment.
They also strive to reflect their constituents’ views. They’re not always successful at this — I think members of Congress tend to underappreciate voters’ pragmatism and overestimate their ideological purity. Still, they’re politicians: Their success rests on being accessible to their constituents, understanding what they want, and aligning themselves with that interest.
For all the attractive individual qualities members of Congress display, however, their institutional performance falls short. Talented though they are, the institution they serve does not work very well. They argue endlessly, pander to contributors and powerful interests, posture both in the media and in countless public meetings, and in the end produce very little. They discuss and debate a lot of problems, but don’t create effective results.
This may be because many members of our national legislature have a constricted view of what it means to be a legislator. They’re satisfied with making a political statement by giving a speech, casting a vote, or getting a bill through the chamber they serve in, rather than writing legislation that will make it through both houses of Congress, get signed by the president, and become a law. Their aim seems to be partisan and ideological, rather than a constructive effort to solve the nation’s problems.