Congress Just Accomplished Something. Can It Do It Again?

Until recently, it seemed like you couldn’t turn around without finding a headline lambasting the current Congress as the least productive ever. There was good reason for that, which we’ll get into shortly, but it’s worth noting that they’ve suddenly disappeared. Clearly, that’s because of April’s passage of the foreign aid package that includes significant aid for Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, and Taiwan, and a measure that attempts to force a sale of TikTok.

There was a great deal that was notable about these steps, including the willingness of GOP House Speaker Mike Johnson to buck members of his own party and not only bring the package to the floor, but turn to Democrats for help in passing it. To my mind, though, something even more notable took place: The Republican caucuses in both the House and the Senate divided over the matter—as did Democrats, if not quite as dramatically. In other words, members of both chambers voted as they saw fit, not according to the party line or in lockstep. It’s been a while since we’ve seen this, and here’s hoping we see more.

To be sure, even before the foreign aid votes, Congress wasn’t quite as tangled by gridlock as it was often painted in the media. Just in the last few months, its members reached a budget deal that keeps the government operating into the fall, and they passed a variety of smaller measures in bipartisan fashion—including one to give a boost to nuclear energy.

Still, there’s no question that the current Congress went into this spring with a notable lack of accomplishments on the major issues confronting the US. Part of this is just hard numbers: In 2023, Congress passed just 34 bills, the fewest in decades. Even given modern trends—the concentration of power in leadership hands that has produced great reliance on omnibus bills and continuing resolutions, rather than the more incremental legislating that marked Congress in its more productive days—that’s not much to show. And it’s worth remembering that some of the bills Congress did pass, including the budget bill and the foreign aid package, were hung up for months by partisanship and intra-party wrangling.

There’s no mystery about what happened. The House, in particular, has been hamstrung by infighting within the Republican majority that has produced a succession of speakers, cliff’s-edge ultimatums, and an inability to tackle major issues that everyone on Capitol Hill knows must be addressed. Passing a budget is pretty much the bare minimum we should expect, but Americans also have a right to wonder just why their Congress has been missing in action on everything from guns to abortion to immigration to the budget deficit.

But it’s also worth pointing out that passing legislation isn’t the only measure of Congress’s worth. When I was first elected to Congress in 1964, the percentage of Americans saying they had trust in government was almost 80 percent — today it’s closer to 20 percent. There are plenty of reasons for this long-term decline, but there’s not much question that partisan gamesmanship in Congress over the last few decades has played a substantial role.

And it’s not just the public that’s expressing dissatisfaction. This year and last have seen a bewildering array of members of Congress themselves—mostly in the House—decide either to leave after this term or, even more unusually, to step down in the middle of the term. Members know the institution better than anyone, and with this wave of unexpected retirements, they’re being quite blunt about their feelings on how well it’s working.

My hope is that congressional leaders take a leaf from their own recent playbook on foreign aid. Congress has been stuck in part because leaders and legislators have prized party unity over tangible accomplishment—to the dismay of the vast majority of Americans who tend to be less ideologically committed and more pragmatic about where policy should wind up than the people who represent them. It’s time for Congress to focus more on the pragmatic accomplishments that Americans want, and less on party ideology.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor 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.

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