Throughout my time in Congress, and particularly since leaving the House of Representatives last year, the question I'm asked most often is some variation of “Just how bad is it really?” Frequently the question is answered before it is asked: “Congress is completely controlled by big money and special interests, isn't it? It's more partisan and dysfunctional than ever before, right?”
Public opinion polls affirm the general view that clearly underlies these questions: Congress is disconnected from the people. It is taken as axiomatic that ordinary citizens are unable to sway their representatives in Washington, that they are not listened to, that they do not count. The question “What's the secret to getting through to Congress?” is not unrelated to “Just how bad is it really?” Both indicate deep-seated negative views of Congress today.
How did we get here? For starters, the United States is large and tremendously diverse. Americans are opinionated and passionate. We have strong ideas about issues, we want our voices heard, we want results, and we want them now.
Further, we live in a nation founded in the aftermath of a revolt against tyranny. Our framers explicitly sought to ensure that no one individual, faction or institution could consolidate power. We have a Constitution that is, as one scholar put it, “an invitation to struggle.”
All of this results in a cacophonous, unruly, multipolar democratic process. Congress, as the body that represents the people, is the institution that most closely resembles the fabric of our nation and all the views, aspirations, resentments and passions that come with it.
This point brings us to a much more consequential connection between the two general questions described above. Getting through to one's congressman is quite easy, but that's equally true for each of the roughly 700,000 constituents that every House member represents.
In most representatives' offices, every single letter, email, fax, phone call and personal visit receives a response. These average in the hundreds every day. When particularly controversial issues come before Congress and groups mobilize to send in form letters, these contacts can spike to thousands in a day.
Mass mailings do have an effect. They raise awareness and signal strong support or opposition. But their effect is limited, and for good reason.
First, because controversial issues, by definition, have advocates on both sides. A blast of form letters from one side is usually followed by a blast of form letters from the other side.
Second, and more important, I found time and again that a flood of letters often masked majority views. Some issues, such as trade and immigration, are always inflammatory in certain quarters, with advocates that are well organized and highly motivated. If I had gauged opinion simply by counting letters I received, I would have had a warped view of public sentiment.
When I reached out to constituents, conducted telephone town halls and met with community leaders of all stripes, a very different picture emerged. I found wide support for greater engagement in the worldwide marketplace, as well as for humane, economically focused immigration reform. In other words, I found that many voices were absent from the debate.
As an elected official, there is no shortcut to gauging district sentiment. As a citizen, there is no shortcut to influencing the legislative process, and no escaping the fact that those with whom you vehemently disagree will have a say as well.
The work that Congress actually gets done is also often lost in the partisan din. One major area that has achieved a great deal of bipartisan success is the issue of free trade. Four major votes on free-trade agreements, and the granting of permanent normal trade relations, passed with big bipartisan numbers during my final term in Congress. Steady progress like that doesn't grab headlines, but it does demonstrate that breaking through gridlock is possible.
This picture of Congress is not one of perfection and great efficiency; it has never been perfect, nor was it ever intended to be efficient. It is, however, intended to give voice to a broad range of views and prevent the rise of authoritarian power. Its role is to be a forum for the ugly, messy, difficult process of democracy.
If Congress is deeply divided, it is because we Americans are deeply divided. Reaching consensus poses great challenges that must be met, not only by congressional and presidential leadership but by the nation. In the meantime, we should recognize that our voices as citizens are heard and that those in Congress are finding ways to move forward amid a divided public.
To answer the original question: Honestly, it's not really that bad.
David Dreier, a Republican congressman from San Dimas from 1981 to 2013, is a Brookings Institution fellow and founder of the Dreier Roundtable at Claremont McKenna College.
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