By Lee Hamilton
There’s a major political event approaching this fall, and though I have no doubt it will be overshadowed by the elections, I hope you’ll carve out some time for it anyway. On Sept. 17, we’ll observe the 225th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution.
It’s the document that set everything in motion, of course, creating the carefully balanced, three-branch representative government that we’ve come to take for granted. But 225 years is a long time, and it’s instructive to reflect on what’s happened since that piece of parchment was signed.
I’m thinking in particular of Congress, which the Framers considered to be so important they put it first, beginning with Article I, Section 1: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”
The Framers wanted Congress to be the engine of law and policy in the United States. Fearful of replicating the monarchy from which they’d won their freedom, they wanted to keep the presidency from becoming too powerful, and so they created a powerful Congress with the authority to declare war, enact taxes, and set the budget.
They wanted to be certain that the voices of the American people had a prominent place in the legislature’s deliberations, and that debate, consultation, and a thorough airing of views were part and parcel of what Congress did. Congress was the keystone of republican government and the fount of policy leadership; the president – as George Washington insisted – was there to carry out legislative intention.
For periods in our country’s history, especially in its early years and in the years leading up to the Civil War, Congress did, indeed, play the leading role the Framers envisioned. Congress today – the “broken branch,” as two prominent congressional scholars called it a few years ago – doesn’t even come close.
It is now a reactive body, hampered by partisanship and ideology, lacking creativity, focused less on policy leadership than on catering to constituents and to those who can help its members get reelected. The central actor in American government today is the president.
Everyone understands that 2012 is not 1787. Yet I fail to see how the Framers’ reasoning – that in a diverse democracy, power ought to rest with the representatives closest to the people – is out of date.
Quite the contrary. By any measure, our nation is poorer because Congress is not functioning as the strong, co-equal branch of government the Constitution envisioned. As we observe this milestone anniversary, it’s worth a pause to honor the Framers’ insight and wisdom, and to regret Congress’s inability to live up to their ideals.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.