A few weeks ago, the survey firm Public Policy Polling made headlines when it released a poll comparing Congress’s standing to a variety of unloved things. Americans, the survey suggested, have a lower opinion of Congress than of head lice, used-car salesmen, and root canals.
I’ll admit it: I chuckled, though I don’t really agree. Having experienced both, I put Congress well ahead of root canals.
Still, in the years since I left Capitol Hill my frustration with the institution I admired and loved has grown; watching it now is painful. Congress has shown a dispiriting unwillingness to reckon with tax reform, the deficit, spurring economic growth, or any of the other tough decisions that face it. Its constant partisanship, lack of urgency in the face of looming fiscal threats, posturing and finger-pointing have made it appear uninterested in actually governing.
Yet people do not run for Congress to become unpopular. Rather, they get caught in a destructive cycle whose dynamics are often shaped by political forces out of their control. Their challenge is to find a way to reassert the values and aspirations that first brought them to national office.
How can they do this? I’m convinced that it comes down to attitude.
To begin, they have to put the country first. Not their party or their re-election or their political ambitions, but the nation’s best interest. This means acting with the future in mind. Americans care about their country’s future, and they want their representatives to do so, too.
Members of Congress need to accept responsibility for resolving the nation’s challenges, whether they’re in the majority or in the minority. Our country simply cannot survive the current reluctance to meet our problems head on or Capitol Hill’s tolerance for the sort of brinksmanship that puts difficult issues off for another day. Members have a responsibility to make the government work.
To do this, they will have to work out their differences — through accommodation and compromise. Working together to build consensus is the only way our representatives will be able to take on the responsibilities Americans expect of them.
That is what Americans are looking for. And that is what Congress needs to deliver if it wants to be more popular than root canals.
— 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.