Congress needs Institutionalists
It takes all kinds of people to make the U.S. Congress work. The ambitious and the laid-back, loners and consensus-builders, partisans and aisle-crossers -- all have their place. In these highly politicized times, though, there's one type who is particularly valuable: The institutionalist.
This means pretty much what it sounds like: A member who puts the institution of Congress first. Who welcomes responsibility for making it work; who pushes his or her colleagues to fulfill their constitutional obligations; who respects the role and history of Congress in forging this country's history.
Institutionalists generally tend to be more senior members of Congress, whose years on Capitol Hill not only give them an appreciation for the accomplishments of the legislators who came before them, but also help them put in perspective all the other considerations that compete for a younger member's attention, like partisanship, power, relations with the White House, and the regular task of getting re-elected.
For what an institutionalist values above all else is the role that Congress plays in making our representative democracy viable. It should not be merely a body of elected officials, each pursuing his or her own goals or banding together to advance one political party's interests. Rather, Congress has a set of responsibilities laid out in the Constitution and developed over the 220 years of its existence that enable it to serve as the place where the American people come closest to touching their national government.
To do what's required of it, Congress must function as a deliberative and democratic body; work as both a partner and a critic of the presidency; protect itself against inevitable pressure from the White House to let the President set the agenda in all things; and engage constantly in the search for remedies to the challenges that beset our country. These things don't just happen on their own. They require members of Congress to tend to the body in which they serve.
All too often, though, both incumbents and challengers these days run against the Congress, taking delight in criticizing it and hoping to make themselves look good as a result; this public disdain for the institution makes it much harder to play a constructive role in building on what's right about the place.
The traditions of Congress -- rules about how legislation should be handled, how debate takes place, how controversy gets channeled through layers of committees so a productive conversation can take place -- evolved because of a simple insight: Democracy is a process, not the most expeditious means to a result. Congressional conventions embody certain values, such as fairness, the importance of deliberation, and a bedrock concern for building consensus instead of riding roughshod over the concerns of the minority or throwing wrenches into the plans of the majority.
Fairness and deliberation and consensus-seeking have not been noticeable priorities in Congress of late. Over the last couple of decades, concern for how Congress functions as an institution has increasingly taken a back seat to other priorities: Party-building, fundraising, the centralization of power in the leadership's hands, making certain that members can take four days every week to get home and campaign. This has all taken a visible toll on relations among members of Congress, and it has also diminished the institution itself. It has become less fair, less deliberative, and -- with some exceptions -- less concerned with finding consensus among its diverse parts.
This is why it is so crucial that there be members of Congress whose chief goal is to strengthen it. Anyone with an appreciation for the accomplishments of Congresses past -- from the GI Bill to the creation of the land-grant colleges to the interstate highway system to Medicare, Medicaid and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s -- can't help but see value in an institution capable of making this a better nation.
Institutionalists in Congress are often seen by their peers as slightly quirky nags, consumed with the trifles of process or precedent while the more important work of fighting against the opposition or slamming legislation through at all costs goes ahead. But of course, they've got it backward. It's the institutionalists who have the nation's best interests at heart, because they understand the role that Congress plays in sustaining a functioning democracy and making the country work.
Lee is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. He can be reached by telephone at (703) 237-1500 or by e-mail at email@example.com .