By Lee Hamilton
Imagine that you pick up a newspaper story about one of the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Reading it, you can’t help but chuckle over how much of the old regime lingers in the supposedly “democratic” national legislature.
When they seem inconvenient, key legislative rules and protections are often simply bypassed. Leaders are so anxious to avoid public scrutiny or real debate that they routinely wait until the middle of the night to hold votes on important issues. They also have a habit of giving ordinary legislators just a few hours to wade through bills that take up hundreds of pages before demanding a vote.
And when the country’s ruler decides to launch a program to spy on its citizens, only a few members of the legislature are told about it, and none demand that other elected representatives get a chance to weigh the move’s wisdom or legality.
You’d put that story down, I’ll wager, relieved that this is not how your own democracy runs.
Except, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m not talking about the parliament of some former Communist country. I’m describing last year’s session of the United States Congress.
Let’s look at some of its actions.
More than once, Congress took a tough stand in public, then undermined it with gimmicks. It enacted caps to curb runaway spending, for instance, then bypassed them by labeling some expenses, such as flu preparedness or additional costs for the Iraq war, as “emergency” funding not counting against the spending caps.
It had a penchant for finding creative ways of avoiding debate on controversial topics. Once, for instance, it crammed a measure giving flu-vaccine manufacturers immunity from lawsuits into a “must-pass” defense appropriations bill. It allowed a major change in welfare to be slipped into a much larger bill, hiding the matter from public scrutiny. And it developed the habit of making crucial decisions in closed-door meetings that largely excluded the minority party and avoided public scrutiny.
Its leaders talked often about the right of the majority to have its way. Yet when both houses voted overwhelmingly in favor of a measure requiring the President to report to Congress on secret prisons, the provision was dropped in a conference committee.
Similarly, both the House and the Senate adopted language to make it easier to sell agricultural products to Cuba - but in the final bill this language was struck. So much for respecting majorities.
Indeed, so much for obeying the rules. Conference committee agreements are supposed to include provisions voted on in both houses, and exclude provisions that were not voted on in either the House or the Senate. Both of those rules were routinely violated last year.
In case after case, Congress showed a reluctance to embrace accountability, open debate and other hallmarks of democratic process. Congressional leaders seemed content to allow a secret program of surveillance over American citizens to go forward with only eight of the Congress’ 535 members even aware of it, and those eight not having an effective way to debate or object to it.
And at 1:12 in the morning on Dec. 19, lawmakers finally got to look at a 774-page bill containing $40 billion in cuts to federal spending programs, then were given all of four-and-a-half hours before they had to vote on it.
Finally, Congress showed even more reluctance to look at itself in the mirror. In a year in which ethics and corruption on Capitol Hill moved squarely into the public spotlight, the House ethics committee carried out not a single investigation.
Capitol Hill these days serves as a reminder that our democracy consists of more than allowing citizens to vote for their representatives. It also requires that Congress behave like the “people’s bpdy” it is supposed to be, following rules that were designed to foster debate and careful deliberation, to respect the clearly expressed views of a majority of lawmakers, and to allow for public scrutiny and accountability. It has increasingly departed from those rules, and our democracy has suffered as a result.
A longstanding joke is that laws are like sausage: It is better not to see them being made. Yet Congress’ abuse of good process and its taste for hiding its activities have become too serious for jokes. Ignoring essential features of the democratic process began years ago in Congress, but the problem now seems out of control. How much further can this trend go, I wonder, before we can no longer claim to have a functioning representative democracy?
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.