Make a joke about politicians squabbling in Washington and about the Congress for which “it is urgent to do nothing,” and you can be sure to get laughs and approval from the audience. These criticisms are as old as the republic itself and always have the same success. Harry Truman’s denunciation in 1948 of Congress’s inaction the do-nothing Congress was the campaign slogan that allowed him to catch up and defeat Thomas Dewey. The press seized on the theme with headlines like “Congress at a standstill? That’s a good thing” or “Long live the stagnant Congress!” But Americans’ traditional skepticism towards Congress seems to have taken a distinctly more sinister turn lately, transforming into pure cynicism.

Congress sometimes can’t boast of having accomplished dazzling legislative work, it’s true. It generally presents a long list of unresolved issues, and this is a weakness its members are fully aware of. Throughout the year, during the weekends they spend in their districts or during parliamentary breaks, they meet with their constituents, who simply ask them, “What have you actually done in Congress?” Even the lists of discussion topics established by the leaders do not allow lawmakers to provide a remotely convincing answer to the question.

So, I believe it is important to emphasize two things about Congress. The first is that it is entirely capable of passing legislation that could have a considerable impact on people’s lives, especially if there is a clear national consensus to support the underlying idea or if it is an urgent and imperative decision in times of crisis. The second is that even when it doesn’t give birth to sensational laws, its members work on issues that, while not as headline-grabbing, nonetheless contribute to improving living conditions both at home and abroad.

It is astonishing how quickly we forget that Congress has been involved in significant achievements in recent years—whether it’s overhauling the social protection system, revising telecommunications legislation, liberalizing trade, or expanding NATO. If the current Congress passes few headline-grabbing laws, can we still say its members are paid to do nothing? Certainly not. They work on highly complex issues whose resolution may span several sessions. For example, laws on air quality (Clean Air Act) and immigration reform (Immigration Reform Act) required the work of several sessions due to their complexity.

Congress also grapples with issues on which there are deep disagreements both within the population and between political parties; reaching a compromise is particularly difficult. Regarding recent Congresses, voters have often complicated legislative action by giving the majority in Congress to one party and electing a president from the opposing party to the White House. Critics may blame “politics” for the deadlock, but one can also see it from another angle: when the country’s government is divided like this, parties turn to the voters, lay out their respective positions on the issues at hand, and ask them to decide in the November elections, which may eventually break the deadlock. This is democracy in action. The process may seem long and discouraging, but this is sometimes how democracy works dare I say, most of the time. Leading our nation’s policy is a very difficult task, especially in the absence of clear and decisive signals from the voters.

Journalists tend to make hasty judgments about Congress’s “inaction” halfway through the legislative term, only to dwell on the most burning issues causing legislative gridlock later on. The media prefer to show what’s wrong rather than what’s right. They pay much less attention to the routine but crucial work that Congress does in other areas, notably the annual appropriations that fund a wide range of federal services crucial to every American’s life.

At each session, Congress votes on appropriations for various departments, agencies, and programs of the federal government, after careful review of their past performance. Dozens of laws are also passed that, by nature, escape controversy and party antagonism; although many of them may be of modest scope, they nonetheless address specific problems and needs.

And every year, Congress holds hearings to allow divergent views on the most important subjects to be aired, monitors the behavior of the executive branch, reviews treaties and presidential appointments, and addresses issues raised by voters.

Some legislative terms will undoubtedly seem less productive than others. However, it is rare for legislative output to fall markedly below 400 new laws enacted during a term, and it is equally rare for a term to end without Congress passing, over a two-year cycle, at least a small number of laws of truly major importance. Members of Congress know they are there to legislate and are committed to fulfilling their mission.

Even when a term is not expected to leave a significant mark in history, it should be noted that more is done in Congress than is generally believed…

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 Complex institution

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