In one of the US Capitol hallways that House members pass through to get to the chambers, there’s an inscription of a comment by Alexander Hamilton. It reads simply, “Here, Sir, the people govern.”
I’ve always thought that was a good summation of what Congress represents: it is a repository of the thoughts and will of the American people. A lot of Americans think highly of that idea, too. People may be disappointed in how Congress performs, but not in its role within our system. I’ve never heard anyone say we’d be better off without it.
My time in the House bore that belief out. Though there were always flaws, the process the House followed was focused on deliberation, debate, discussion… and choosing a solution based on a rough consensus of its members.
In particular, I was struck by the idea that the more broadly a piece of legislation reflects the American people, the greater its acceptability, effectiveness, and staying power. The body is made up of members who fiercely advocate for their views. And the whole institution is a focal point for competing interests weighing in on difficult problems. It is a real cauldron.
The legislative process is a key part of how the country works through those competing interests. Debate, deliberation, calculation, compromise — it’s an inefficient process that, for difficult issues, can go on for a long time. But over the course of our history, it’s been productive.
This is why those of us who value the institution of the Congress — who actually believe in Hamilton’s words — have lamented the trend of recent decades ceding power to the presidency. The Constitution is explicit: legislative power is vested in Congress. But if that power is not protected or goes unused, it does not merely evaporate; in our system, it flows to the presidency or the judiciary. It passes out of the hands of the body that most closely represents the American people.
When President Trump talks of the presidency as if there were no check on it, as if, as president, he is beyond the reach of the law or of Congress, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle rightly disagree. For better or worse, Congress remains the spot where the cross-currents of American popular opinion have their best chance of being heard, listened to, and acted upon. That’s one power members should never give up.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Send comments to [email protected].