It’s depressing to read poll after poll highlighting Americans’ utter disdain for Congress. But it’s my encounters with ordinary citizens at public meetings or in casual conversation that really bring me up short. In angry diatribes or in resigned comments, people make clear their dwindling confidence in both politicians and the institution itself.
Yet as people vent their frustration, I hear something else as well. It is a search for hope. They ask, almost desperately sometimes, about grounds for renewed hope in our system. Here’s why I’m confident that we can do better.
Let’s start with a point that should be obvious, but that people rarely notice: Our expectations are too high. Public officials routinely over-promise and under-perform, but the problem is also with Congress itself. On almost every issue there, progress comes in increments. Focusing on any one moment in our legislative history is to miss the slow but undeniable advance of progress on Capitol Hill.
I also tend to be more patient with congressional leaders than many people who share their frustrations with me. Our political leaders confront a terribly difficult political environment: The country is both deeply and evenly divided along partisan and ideological lines. It takes skill, competence, and a great deal of passion to make progress in this kind of environment.
This brings me to a third point. Members of Congress are good politicians. Most try hard to understand what the people want. It may take a while, but Congress in the end responds to public sentiment.
Finally, Congress has proven over its long history that even in the most difficult circumstances it can be astoundingly productive. At one of the darkest times in our recent history, during the height of the Watergate scandal — when tensions between Congress and the White House and between Democrats and Republicans were no less pointed than they are now — Congress and President Nixon were still able to collaborate on such key legislation as the Federal Aid Highway Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Congress often has risen above periods of great contention. It possesses a resilience that is obvious from the perspective of decades. Building on that search for hope in our system, and on the long historical record, Americans have good reason to believe that Congress can and will do better.
• Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.