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OPINION: Yes, Congress needs to represent us, but it also needs to act

By Lee Hamilton

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Back in January, you might have noticed a story from Oklahoma about James Lankford, that state’s senior U.S. senator. Lankford, a Republican, was spearheading his caucus’s negotiations with Democrats over the country’s border policies. This made GOP activists back home unhappy, and at a weekend meeting, members of the state party approved a resolution condemning Lankford and vowing to withhold their support until he ended negotiations.

I get that people can legitimately disagree over policy. But condemning someone for negotiating in Congress? That’s what Congress is all about.

Let’s begin with this simple point: Yes, we send people to Congress to represent us, but that’s only half of the reason they’re there. The other half is that it’s their responsibility to make hard decisions on behalf of the American people and to help us meet the challenges we face. In our system, it’s the people we elect — in this case, Congress and the President — who do that. Thankfully, no one else can swoop in and do it for them.

I say “thankfully” because one of the things that makes their work so difficult is the first part of their responsibilities: to represent their constituents. They’re our voices in the halls of power — and if you think about the broad expanse of this country and the diversity of its people, its cities and small towns, its counties and its states, you can understand why the ability to seek common ground and to negotiate is so crucial. Without it, huge swaths of the American people lose their voice and their representation. You could argue, in fact, that negotiation and compromise lie at the heart of the American experiment with democracy.

Yet they’re just part of what needs to happen. The other part of what’s required from Congress is to make the country work.

As we’ve seen over the past decade or more — and certainly so far this year — this is extremely tough when the U.S. is as politically divided as it is now. And it’s especially tough when one of the chambers has a strong faction of members who put ideological purity ahead of taking action on the country’s problems and responsibilities. House Republicans’ intractability on the border and on aid to Ukraine and Israel almost certainly plays well at home in their GOP-dominated districts, but [I believe] it weakens the U.S.’s ability to meet the moment. It means that Congress is keeping the country from doing what needs to be done.

It’s at moments like these that I’m reminded of one of my favorite statues in the Capitol. It’s of another Oklahoman, Will Rogers, and it stands in the second-floor corridor between the rotunda and the House chamber. The story — passed from generation to generation of members of Congress — is that Rogers requested it be placed there so he could keep an eye on them. Capitol officials say the location was actually chosen by the sculptor because it had the best light, but I’m with tradition here: Congress needs watching over by ordinary Americans. And if it’s not doing its job — if it’s keeping the U.S. gridlocked and unable to act wisely and forcefully as needed — then its members need to hear from us.

I believe strongly in representative democracy. I think it’s one of the great ideas developed by humankind and given form, in part, by the U.S. But the more I watch it in action, the more I’m impressed by how difficult it is to make it work. Giving the multitude of Americans their voice while at the same time crafting policies that can get a legislative majority and move the ball forward takes a huge amount of effort by people who are working hard to find common ground. This requires that members of Congress square their shoulders and step up to their responsibilities — [overcoming] whoever is trying to knock them off their path.

But it also requires that we, as ordinary Americans, give [our representatives in Congress] room to make things work. Not condemn them for trying.        


Lee Hamilton, 92, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana. 

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