During my time as a member of Congress, a curious phenomenon occurred several times a year. I would receive visits from a group of finance professionals who came to ask me to make some minor changes to legislation regarding their activities. What was strange about the matter was not that they were trying to pressure me many people did that but rather how they did it. Most groups, when given the opportunity to meet with a member of Congress, are curious about a number of things, particularly the big issues: the economic situation, the budget deficit, foreign affairs.

But these people only wanted to talk about the seemingly minor change they wanted to see made to a particular piece of legislation governing their profession, advancing an extremely technical and specific argument. Afterward, they would move on to the next office. That being said, their approach was not incorrect. But I was struck by their lack of interest in the country’s overall situation.

When a professional group focuses solely on its own interests, it often signals to Congress that its proposals need to be carefully examined and weighed against the general interest. But Congress sometimes deviates from this rule, and the consequences of such negligence can be painful, as evidenced by recent scandals resulting from Congress’s leniency toward financial companies and the private entities supposed to regulate them.

This is a point worth keeping in mind, as it highlights one of the reasons Congress can make mistakes. Critics of our legislative congress often try to portray it as an institution, detached from the concerns of Americans, distant and inaccessible. In fact, it is the opposite: Congress is extremely sensitive to pressure. These pressures sometimes come from all directions, with each group trying to influence the area that is of major importance to them; sometimes the pressure comes from a single source that no one else pays much attention to.

Very often, these pressures have led to innovative laws and measures of which we have every reason to be proud. But they can also lead Congress to approve legislation that does not stand the test of time. If the founders made Congress a deliberative body where the adoption of laws can take months, even years, it is largely because they were aware of this danger and wanted to make it difficult for Congress to move in the wrong direction. But despite these precautions, it can happen.

It’s not hard to compile a long list of Congress’s decisions or lack of decisions that, in hindsight, seem highly regrettable. Take, for example, the miserable way our country treated Native Americans, in accordance with the policy adopted by Congress. Or the high tariffs voted by Congress in the 1930s to protect various American industries, which only worsened and prolonged the Great Depression. Or the prohibition laws adopted in 1919, repealed fifteen years later after so many bloody episodes. Or our refusal, after World War I, to ratify the treaty establishing the League of Nations, a refusal dictated by Congress’s decision not to involve the country in an international organization and which we are justified in thinking may have precipitated the outbreak of World War II.

In the past ten years, Congress has often avoided delicate issues, showing relative passivity in the face of the large number of Americans without health insurance, the long-term threat to the solvency of Social Security, and our energy dependence.

There are many reasons why Congress can go wrong. Sometimes its workload is so heavy that it cannot give all issues the careful consideration they deserve. The questions it tackles are sometimes so complex, and the interests attached to them so diverse, that its honest attempts to find a legislative solution are doomed to failure. There are sometimes political calculations or compromises that lead to results that cannot be said to be perfect.

And sometimes Congress simply implements policies that it believes reflect the interests and desires of certain groups of citizens but do not serve the common good. This reminds us that Congress for whatever reason makes mistakes, even when following procedures and obeying motivations that, under other circumstances, would produce solid results.

One of the most permanent features of the legislative process is that issues are constantly re-examined. Even when it is on the right track as was the case with the adoption of Title IX, which ensures women equal treatment in education and sports activities at the university level Congress must revisit the issue to ensure that everything is working properly. Hence the recent investigation into whether Title IX had any adverse effects on male students’ sports activities and whether adjustments and refinements to the law were needed. The same goes when Congress makes a mistake whose negative effects it perceives. It revisits the issue again and again, re-examining possible solutions and trying to develop a better approach. All this reinforces the idea that Congress never considers the outcome of its work as definitively acquired and constantly renews its efforts.

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

We invite you to read the following article “The House of Representatives and the Senate“.

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