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What Do You Think of Congress?

One member worries about public misconceptions of Congress - what it does, how it works

Over the years, I have become increasingly concerned about the public's understanding of Congress.

Many comments and complaints about Congress are right on the mark. But often what I hear shows a poor grasp of what Congress does and how it works, and that contributes to the growing cynicism about government. Several examples:

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Ethics standards. People often will say Congress's ethics standards have declined and many members are dishonest and corrupt. Certainly some members engage in improper conduct, yet most experts on Congress would say congressional ethics have improved considerably over the years.

When I came to Congress, there was no House Ethics Committee, no written code of conduct, no financial-disclosure requirements. Members could accept lavish gifts and convert campaign contributions to personal use, and they were rarely punished for personal corruption. None of that would be tolerated today.

Special-interest money. Americans hear all the stories about members' extensive fund-raising and believe Congress is a "bought" institution. It's clear the "money chase" has gotten out of hand and that we ignore this problem at our own peril. I would be the last to say contributors have no impact on a member's voting record.

But there are too many other influences that shape members' voting decisions - including their assessment of the arguments, the opinions of experts, their party's position, and, most important, what their constituencies want. Members know that if they don't vote the way their constituents want, they simply won't be reelected.

Impact of Congress. Many people aren't aware of the overall spending priorities of Congress, thinking that most federal spending goes to welfare, foreign aid, or defense, when in fact the biggest chunk, by far, goes to programs for older Americans.

People often will say Congress's actions have little or no impact on their daily lives. National policy debates become difficult when key facts, such as what we spend the money on, are not well understood.

Members out of touch. Most Americans feel that members don't pay much attention to what their constituents want.

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My experience is that most members are acutely aware of their constituents' views. They are in constant contact with their constituents and go to great lengths to solicit their views. They return home most weekends and closely follow local opinion through district staff reports, polling results, and local news reporting.

Indeed, the reverse contention may be closer to the mark, that members today pay almost too much time noticing every "blip" in public opinion polls and thinking about what will play well in the next election rather than what would be good for the country.

Perks and pay. Many people complain about members always looking out for their perks and pay, enriching themselves at the taxpayer's expense. Almost daily I'll hear from constituents who think that I get free gas or free medical care, or that I don't pay income taxes or contribute to Social Security - none of which is true. Members well know that their pay and benefits are highly sensitive politically. Over the years Congress has eliminated many special benefits, and it should continue to do so.

People are surprised to hear that since I've been in Congress, member pay has not even kept up with inflation. My current pay is $20,000 less than if my 1965 pay had been adjusted to inflation.

Slow, messy processes. People don't like Congress's slow, messy, ponderous processes, which allow bills to be buried in committee or stalled through lengthy floor debates.

We certainly need to streamline the operations of Congress, but I think we misunderstand the role of Congress if we think it should be a model of efficiency or quick action. The Founding Fathers never intended it to be. They understood that one of the key roles of Congress is to slow down the process - to allow tempers to cool and to encourage deliberation, so that unwise or damaging laws aren't enacted in the heat of the moment.

Constant bickering. One of the most frequent complaints I hear about Congress is that members spend too much time arguing and bickering.

There has no doubt been too much partisan wrangling in recent years, but people often don't understand that Congress is designed to allow contentious debates on the major policy issues of the day.

In a country as large and remarkably diverse as ours, one of the key roles of Congress is to act as a sounding board for all the diverse groups in our society. Allowing all sides a chance to be heard as we try to reach a consensus on a long list of difficult issues means that the debate may at times be contentious, but it also helps to keep our country from coming apart at the seams.

Public misconceptions about Congress aren't just a matter of interest for academics. In our representative democracy they have a big impact on how well our system of government works. They lead to public feelings of mistrust and alienation and give rise to widespread cynicism about government in general and Congress in particular.

Recent polls have shown that only 10 percent of the American public has a great deal of confidence in Congress. I worry about how far this cynicism can go without undermining the legitimacy and functions of government. Reducing cynicism toward government requires both improved performance by government and improved understanding of its role.

Congress is a complex, important, and fascinating institution with both strengths and weaknesses. I am impressed almost daily with the way it tackles difficult problems and acts as a national forum in developing a consensus. I am particularly impressed with the role it has played in creating and maintaining a nation more free than any other.

Ensuring that the American people have an accurate understanding of Congress's role in national governance and its strengths and weaknesses is one of our most important challenges in the years ahead.

We need to get Americans to think twice about the role of government and its impact on their lives.

* Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana is ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

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