Given the media spectacle of the bickering and gridlock that tear apart Congress, many Americans must wonder what drives people to work in this mess. This question is not new. “We can easily understand the reasons why a man goes to the poorhouse or to prison,” noted a 19th-century observer of Institution. “It’s because he has no other choice. But why a man chooses deliberately to go to Washington, that’s a question that baffles me.” And yet, for those of us who have had the privilege of serving in office, Congress is a fascinating and vital institution.

Since the very first Congress of 1789, some 12,000 men and women have been tasked to work in Congress. Over the years, the framers of the Constitution and the pioneers of the Frontier have given way to astronauts and internet professionals. Twenty-four out of our forty-three presidents and twenty-eight Supreme Court justices have emerged from the ranks of Congress. I have always been struck by the diversity of my colleagues’ backgrounds. I have sat on committees alongside individuals who were doctors, CEOs, university professors, welfare recipients, social workers, professional athletes, physicists, or heroes decorated from the last war. If there’s one thing former members of Congress invariably complain about, it’s the lack of regular contact with their colleagues.

In many respects, Congress resembles a small town. Over thirty thousand people work there, including auditors, legal advisors, social workers, librarians, and the Capitol Police. Its buildings on Capitol Hill, spread across forty “blocks” of buildings, cover an area of over 250 acres and are connected by a labyrinth of corridors and underground passages. The Capitol itself covers 4.9 acres. This space encompasses both the grand esplanade where the presidential inauguration ceremony takes place every four years and less visible places, such as the virtually inaccessible premises of the intelligence committee, secured against the most sophisticated electronic espionage systems.

For over two centuries, Congress has debated the composition of government, tariff protections, the “manifest destiny” of the American nation, slavery and states’ rights, declarations of war, civil rights and voting rights, the impeachment of officials, and globalization. The primary task of Institution is to vote on the nation’s laws. During each two-year legislative session, some five thousand bills or resolutions are introduced in the House, and a similar number, often identical to those introduced in the House, are introduced in the Senate. At the end of the two years, some five hundred new laws will have been enacted, many of which will include multiple provisions that originated in individual proposals.

Congress has two hundred committees and subcommittees that examine and prepare legislation; members vote hundreds of times a year on subjects ranging from simple routine procedural matters to declarations of war, and projects costing hundreds of billions of dollars. The diversity of issues that Congress has to deal with today is staggering, and examining a bill requires a thorough understanding of a complex legislative process with its own terminology: mark-up, hold, amendment tree, filibuster, cloture, germaneness, soft-earmark, suspension, reconciliation.

When I was first elected to the House, I was clearly instructed to keep quiet for a few years, until I had fully assimilated the rules and traditions of Institution. Young lawmakers nowadays gain their freedom of action more quickly, but there is still a fairly steep learning curve.

This text is an excerpt from the book “How the American Congress Works” written by Lee H. Hamilton.

We invite you to read the following article “A Fair View Of Congrès“.

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