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.
As election season approaches, I’ve been pondering a crucial issue about the role of government in our society. It’s that our government often fails — and that we need to address this. What’s odd is that while the frequent failures in government’s performance are very much on ordinary people’s minds, politicians don’t talk much about fixing them.
It’s no news that Congress is unpopular. In fact, at times it seems like the only real novelty on Capitol Hill would be a jump in its approval rating.
We Americans are trapped in a political dilemma. We all like representative democracy, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing.
Like other federal scandals before it, the mess involving VA hospitals has followed a well-trod path. First comes the revelation of misdoing. Then comes the reaction: a shocked public, an administration on the defensive, grandstanding members of Congress. Finally, major reform bills get introduced, debated, then put aside when the heat dies down, or the target agency gets more money thrown at the problem.
These days, the scandal involving long wait times at VA hospitals can feel like some made-in-Washington spectacle generated by politicians looking for headlines. But it isn’t. It had its genesis in a late-April report on CNN that as many as 40 veterans may have died waiting for appointments at VA hospitals in Phoenix.
It’s depressing to read poll after poll highlighting Americans’ utter disdain for Congress. But it’s my encounters with ordinary citizens at public meetings or in casual conversation that really bring me up short. In angry diatribes or in resigned comments, people make clear their dwindling confidence in both politicians and the institution itself.
I felt a brief surge of hope about Congress a few weeks ago. It was returning from Easter recess, and Capitol Hill was filled with talk about immigration reform, a minimum-wage bill, a spending bill to keep the government operating, and maybe even funding for transportation infrastructure. But, as I said, it was brief.
Many trends in American politics and government today make me worry about the health of our representative democracy. These include the decline of Congress as a powerful, coequal branch of government, the accumulation of power in the presidency, and the impact of money on the overall political process.
Five years ago, the federal government spent $169 billion to fund basic research and development. This fiscal year, it’s down to $134 billion.
In 1965, the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills, brought legislation establishing Medicare and Medicaid to the floor of the U.S. House. That was my first year in Congress, and I remember vividly the moment when Mills came to the Democratic caucus to explain his plans.