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Public misperceptions of Congress

Guest Blogger

Congress often falls so low in poll numbers that it seems easy to dismiss it as a credible, serious branch of government. But Louis Fisher believes there are major problems with this attitude. One is the failure to understand the essential role that Congress has played over its history. The other is to exaggerate the competence and credibility of the president and the Supreme Court. In part, Congress gets hammered because what it does is largely in plain sight –– certainly a more visible branch than the others. Fisher says he wrote ‘‘On Appreciating Congress: The People’s Branch," published by Paradigm, to better understand Congress. Fisher, the author of 20 books, recently retired after four decades with the Library of Congress in the Congressional Research Service and the Law Library.

By Louis Fisher

Congress is the only branch of government that has a steady record of denigrating itself. The two chambers take potshots at each other, the competing political parties square off, and lawmakers take to the air (or the floor) to demean their own institution.

Small wonder that Congress doesn’t do well in public polls. Easily lost in this circus is the careful work that members of Congress do in holding hearings, passing legislation, and taking care of problems brought to their attention by constituents and the press.

In my 40 years as a congressional staffer I constantly compared its wretched public reputation with the thoughtful work I saw in congressional offices and committees. If the American people got a closer look at the executive and judicial branches, admiration for their activities would plummet. But that closer look will never happen. The result: a permanent and irreversible bias in public polls. Most lawmakers and their staffs accept this reality and go about their business.

Congress is the indispensable for safeguarding popular, democratic and constitutional government. The framers looked to Congress as the First Branch because it is through the legislative branch that citizens at the local and state levels engage in self-government, both by voting for representatives and senators and meeting with them on a regular basis, either in D.C. or in field offices.

Presidents, for all their claims to be the “national representative,” cannot compete with the knowledge and legitimacy that members of Congress bring to office. Presidents have views on some abstract and often poorly understood issues. Lawmakers know their districts and their states with a detail, grasp, and familiarity that presidents cannot match.

Efforts to weaken and downgrade Congress inevitably undercut the hope and future of democracy and self-government. A weaker Congress means a loss of the checks and balances that is crucial in protecting individual rights and liberties. The end result: a political system where citizens dutifully vote for lawmakers at election time but the key decisions of public policy are shifted to nonelected executive branches and federal judges. That is something other than democracy. Perhaps some kind of government by elites and self-described experts.

If we want to keep political power with the people and make popular sovereignty a reality, not a slogan, the institution of Congress must be respected and protected.

It is commonly believed that Congress cannot possibly protect the rights of minorities because it operates by majority vote. It is assumed that the judiciary is especially gifted in safeguarding minority rights. Whatever the logic, the record is quite different. Federal courts did little for more than a century and a half in protecting individuals and minorities. They chiefly defended government and corporate rights. Congress was the better protector of women, blacks, religious minorities, and other beleaguered groups.

Certainly Congress has suffered serious weaknesses as an institution, particularly in the years after World War II. The framers expected each branch to defend itself and fight off encroachments. Congress does a poor job of protecting its prerogatives, often surrendering power it alone should exercise.

Critics of Congress say “So what? Let other branches take those functions.” When Congress weakens its institutional powers it weakens the powers of its constituents and the aspiration of self-government. Members of Congress take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, not presidents and the Supreme Court.

There are many reasons for the decline of Congress. Part of the responsibility falls to scholars who have long championed presidential power and judicial supremacy, not only exaggerating the virtues and capabilities of those branches but losing sight of the objectives of democratic and constitutional government.

Paul Quirk and Sarah Binder, in their work on the “The Legislative Branch” (2005), conclude that political leaders and news commentators in their critiques of Congress “rarely take stock of Congress as an institution of democracy. Regrettably, neither do scholars.”

Julian Zelizer, editor of “The American Congress: The Building of Democracy” (2004), refers to Congress as “the heart and soul of democracy, the arena where politicians and citizens most directly interact over pressing concerns.” Amen to that.

By Steven E. Levingston  | October 5, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  | Tags:  congress misperceptions; media abuse of congress; congress virtues  
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Legislative bodies, and their members, have never been popular. Regardless of whether one examine the Athenian Assembly, the U.S. Congress or the various European parliaments, legislatures always have a bad press. But at their core, they embody two critical principles. First, that "Here sir, the people rule" and second that fiercely contentious public policy differences can be determined by votes rather than combat.

Legislatures have always been the most visable public policy arenas. The men and women who occupy them have often failed miserably despite valient efforts but they have rarely been called on to join those poor timid souls "who know niether triumph nor defeat".

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | October 5, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

I suspect it is the disconnect between what many folks have been led to believe, and the actual "sausage making" that is the legislative process, that causes the most public scorn of our national legislature.
Of course, human nature being what it is, we always find the most fault with the other guy's representatives, while giving our own the benefit of the doubt in most cases.
Maybe Churchill had us right, when he said that Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after we had tried everything else.

Posted by: OldUncleTom | October 5, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

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