It’s Time for Congress to Measure Up to the Country’s Expectations

As I write this, the war between Hamas and Israel continues with fury on both sides and the US House of Representatives remains without a speaker, unable to pass legislation or allow the United States government to respond with its full weight to that crisis. Like many Americans, I find myself both frustrated by the standstill and left wondering, What if we faced a full-blown crisis on our own shores? Could Congress put its divisions behind it and act quickly for the good of the country?

I don’t want to pick apart the maneuvering that brought us to this moment. The eight Republican House members who voted to dislodge Kevin McCarthy from the speakership had their own motivations. So did the centrist Republicans who decided against trying to find a candidate palatable to centrist Democrats. House Democrats had plenty of logical and well-articulated reasons for refusing to come to McCarthy’s rescue. And over in the Senate, GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville has his own rationale for continuing to block military promotions—thus affecting our ability to project power in the Middle East—because of a clash over abortion policy.

The thing about a global crisis, though, is that it puts things in perspective, and right now, the US doesn’t look like a fully functioning world leader. That’s thanks in no small part to decisions made by members of Congress that put political gain or score-settling or partisan calculations ahead of the responsibility they all hold to keep the US government operating effectively and with the full range of its capabilities.

And the American people have noticed. In a poll released early in October, Gallup found that 63 percent of US adults “currently agree with the statement that the Republican and Democratic parties do ‘such a poor job’ of representing the American people that ‘a third major party is needed.’”

I am not among that 63 percent: I believe that, over the course of our history, the two-party system has served the American people well, and that it can continue to do so. Still, that’s a lot of people who don’t like where the parties have taken us.

The challenge, certainly for the House, is to find a way past this moment quickly—and to put in place changes that will buttress Americans’ faith that it can be a fully responsible partner in governing this country. Not long ago, Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic leader there, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he noted that he and other Democratic leaders had “repeatedly raised the issue of entering into a bipartisan governing coalition with our Republican counterparts” and been rebuffed. In particular, he wrote, his caucus had hoped to put in place rules changes that would “encourage bipartisan governance and undermine the ability of extremists to hold Congress hostage.”

There’s a good chance that any Republican who supported such moves would face a primary next year. Yet clearly, the rules under which the House now operates aren’t serving it—or the country—in good stead. While I have some sympathy with those GOP members of the Freedom Caucus who want to restore the power of committees in the House, as well as what’s known as the “regular order” and the ability of rank-and-file members to have a voice in debate, I also believe that in this day and age, the speaker needs to be a strong presence, with the ability to keep fractiousness within bounds. At a minimum, this means rejecting the idea that at any moment, a single member can topple a speaker by bringing a motion to vacate, as Republican Matt Gaetz did to McCarthy.

I can’t predict how the House will get itself out of this mess, or how the Senate might deal with Tuberville’s obstruction. But I do know that the American people are losing patience, that a broad range of domestic issues need Congress’s attention, and that the situation in the Middle East—as well as in Ukraine and elsewhere—demands a US government that can respond quickly and effectively. It’s time for Congress to show that it recognizes all this.

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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