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Congress, A Great Institution

It the holiday high season and, in Congress, that means the decoration of the federal budget Christmas tree with very expensive ornaments. A majority of the Members on the Republican side of the aisle are not going to like it; however, folks want to go home for the holidays. And they should. As Mark Twain penned long ago:  “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe, while Congress is in session.”

I was reading a series of articles in a POLITICO special feature, “Can Congress Be Saved?” Saved from what? It depends who you ask and, in the case of this article, whose idea it was to generate it in the first place. There is an agenda or two or more embedded throughout the piece. A good read, albeit a very cynical view about the state of play in this town.

It is not the “worst” Congress in history, as two authors penned. Despite all the seemingly bad news coming from our friends just over the river, Congress remains a remarkable institution. Americans are blessed to have it. People are dying all over the world to have something like the American system of government, warts and all. Yleem and I can attest to that first-hand as we have traveled to many places where folks want something more from political leaders that resembles the U.S. system.

Yesterday, I asked a former reporter, friend, and public relations professional, what is it about certain reporters interjecting political bias in stories. We were discussing the Obama-Castro handshake in South Africa. One of her tweet responses crystallizes what I’m talking about in this post (note the hashtag):

What Can We the People Do Better, a more apt premise, could have generated similar and forward-looking stories in that POLITICO special. A controversial headline? No. But does not need to be. Yet both political parties, and the special interests that support them, have fueled anti-Congress by-lines for centuries so expect the stories to continue.

Maybe its because Yleem and I worked many years in Congress  that we have a very different view of it from folks in this town who have not. One of the lessons I learned quite early in this town, from one of the last remaining legislative giants, was a quite simple one: buildings will always be here, it is the people who change. Focus on the latter, not the institution. Invariably, if there is a problem, it is with the people entrusted with the power.

Of all the articles, it is former Congressman Vic Fazio’s (D-Calif.) recommendations that folks should really take to heart:

Improving the institution “will require a new commitment from lawmakers to spend more time in Washington, doing the work in congressional committees that used to be the hallmark of the House and Senate.”

Today, little real oversight occurs, and few existing laws are considered for reauthorization. Political message bills driven by leadership with little hope of enactment are no substitute for serious, substantive work on the many issues that confront the country today.

And a leadership that allows power to flow back to chairs and ranking members of committees will be rewarded with a record of achievement that has been almost totally absent in recent years.

While I  disagree with his indirect attack on the current GOP House as well as former Speaker Gingrich’s reform efforts, take to heart his points on oversight and the role of Congressional Committees in the budget process.

The Founding Fathers were clear that the political system would evolve as history warrants, but the basic underlying principles must not. If you want to reform the institution of Congress, focus on sending people to Washington who will stand their ground for what they believe in, but also be able to separate the political wheat (oversight and what can generate votes and be signed into law) from the political chaff (everything else).

No matter what the polls and pundits have to say, Congress is a great institution.

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