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Many Americans in today's society will find it difficult to answer the question of what Congress exactly does and why it exists. Others simply don't care and see Congress as a failed system where nothing gets done. Lee Hamilton, in his book Why Congress Works and Why you Should Care, proves these people wrong and gives an insider's look at what Congress actually does do and how it affects every American each day.
Congress has come a long way since its creation but its role has not changed. Although there is much criticism on the way Congress is run, the system is an integral part of the American government. It's main and most important duty is to portray the wide arrayed views of the American people and this is not as easy as it seems. It can be a difficult process for Congress to come to an agreement on these issues because its members come from all over America with different views on what is right and what is wrong. The majority of American people feel that the public agrees on most issues but this is untrue. America is an extremely diverse nation with differing views on various issues. With all the different people in the country it is not unusual to get different opinions and beliefs.
The legislative branch of government is a complex system that is separated into two branches, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Both which have different tasks. The favored branch of the public is the House of Representatives because the people feel that they can relate more with their congressmen then their senators. This is another important aspect of the role that congressmen have, representing their constituents. Congressmen are elected to be the voice of their constituency and people rely on them to get their issues heard and resolved. In the book, Lee Hamilton speaks of a gentleman named Wilbur Mills, who is a powerful legislator from Arkansas. As they were walking in D.C he spoke of how he was going to some small town in Arkansas to hold a public meeting with about twenty people. He told Hamilton, "Lee, don't ever forget your constituents. Nothing, nothing comes before them." (p.53) It is very important for congressmen to keep in touch with their constituents, not only are they the people that are keeping them in office but also they are the people that are counting on him/her to voice their thoughts and concerns.
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Another important feature that is equally weighed with representation is the legislative side of Congress. One of Congress's main responsibilities is to draft and pass legislation. Everyday Americans disregard the things around them that have been built, created, or changed through bills passed in Congress. These things include laws, roads, jobs, taxation, healthcare etc. The list is never ending. Without Congress we would not have a social security program, the nice roads which we ride on or the grants and federal aid that the government provides for students. Congress has the power to do all these things, most of which are overlooked by the American people. Drafting and creating new bills is a difficult task for Congress. These bills have to be a summation of all the American people and thought through very carefully. The process is very unpredictable and cannot be done neatly and hastily. There are loopholes everywhere and then there is also the veto of the executive and judiciary branch. Many people complain that Congress works very slowly and that nothing gets done. These people have to realize that it is not one person deciding on the laws of the nation; it is a grouping of assorted individuals who want their views to get across and their bills to be approved. Congress was set up this way for a reason, and nothing great gets accomplished too quickly.
An additional responsibility that Congress shares with the people is voting. People elect their political officials to represent them and these officials vote on different issues based on their constituents needs, at least that is what is expected of them. Members do not have to think or work hard to make voting decisions. They are bombarded by campaign donors, powerful special interest groups and by their political parties and are persuaded to vote according to their positions. Sometimes they simply vote based on their personal beliefs. Hamilton points out that on average members participate in ninety five percent of all votes held.
The role as a member of Congress is also important. With all the criticisms about the corruption and scandals in Congress it is vital to be a good politician. Hamilton addresses some points that make a politician good at what he/she does. First, he believes that a member should be good with other people, particularly their fellow members. They should be good listeners, good at talking and consulting and most importantly to be able to hear from all sides. Second they should be calm and respect the views of others. Politicians should not express anger or argue with other members on controversial issues. Lastly they should be good at persuasion, willing to compromise and willing to share the credit. Hamilton sums up a good politician by saying that "they should simply make the country work." (p. 60)
Despite all the good work that the Congress does, there is still an enormous amount of criticism from the public. Most of the criticisms are simply misunderstandings or lack of knowledge. People argue that politicians are only in Congress for personal gains, that they are crooks and that they do not care about what the people think but they overlook the good politicians who are making a difference in our country. The media does a poor job as well at presenting the good vs. the bad. They are more concerned with the politicians involved in scandals and corruption then the politicians who are actively participating in their districts and meeting with their constituents. Not all politicians are saints, there are the bad apples but that is the responsibility of the government to find them and get rid of them. Most experts would argue that Congress has gotten better over the years. Hamilton expands on this idea and talks about when he first entered Congress and the normality of members accepting lavish gifts from special interest groups, corporations and pocketing campaign contributions. But he stresses that this is not tolerated now.
Another criticism is that there is too much pork-barreling taking place and that powerful politicians are wasting money that could be used on more important things. What many people fail to notice is that without pork-barreling some of the things in their own towns would not exist such as bridges or roads. Although there is a problem with this, it is not entirely wasteful. Most pork-barreling projects support museums, funding for schools, water purification, and the building of roads and bridges.
Another common complaint is that members are out of touch with their constituents and that they rarely make time for their districts. Although being connected with their constituency is important, there are various other things on the agenda of a member of Congress. Their schedules are very hectic and are usual unpredictable. Many members complain that constituent service crowds out the time they need to study legislation that must be voted on. Also as a member of Congress, there is no time for a life outside of politics. Many do not see their families for months, they cannot plan vacations and do not have time for leisure activities. If they are not voting, they are meeting with fellow members, running committees, drafting bills, traveling in between D.C and their districts and the list goes on. Many people forget that these members are only one person that can only do one thing at a time. Most members of Congress get into this field of work to make a difference and are willing to help their constituents as much as they can.
There are many improvements that can be made to make Congress a more organized and respected branch of government. The system was created with a good framework but the members have to keep it together. The problem with Congress lies within its walls among the members. In order to being a successful branch the members have to cooperate and come to agreements on issues together. There also needs to be a better relationship with the executive branch. Recently, the President has been exercising a great deal of power that should be shared with Congress. The President cannot run the country alone. That is why the other two branches of government were created. A better relationship and consultation with the President should be an important component of Congress. Another improvement that is needed in Congress is the over sight of what's going on in our government. The only way to weed out the bad congressmen is by keeping an eye out on them. Congress has been getting better with this, but there is still a lot going on within the government that is being over looked. Money is being wasted and crimes are being committed that should not be tolerated. Hamilton also points out that Congress should also limit the attachments made to bills to legislation and passing of bills that are under restrictive rule, which leaves little room for making changes or improving the legislation. Lastly, congressmen need to work for the common good of the people and not for personal enrichment. The people that enter Congress for personal gains end up hurting the system through corruption and scandal.
With all said, we cannot expect Congress to change overnight or without the help of the general public. The system was made to represent the country and people need to get involved if they want the system to work to its best ability. There are many ways that people can get involved. The most important duty that we have as citizens is to vote. Through voting we can change many things. Another way to strengthen our democracy is to get educated. Most people do not even know who their congressman is or what they are doing. Also people need to get educated about our government and how it works. People tend to complain but they do not know why it is happen the way it is or what can be done to change it. Simply switching on the news or opening a newspaper is enough. Other ways of participating is by going to public meetings with congressmen or writing letters to the public officials.
In conclusion, I agree with Hamilton's defense. I think he makes a strong argument defending Congress and I believe this book is a great way to educate people on the system without being too dry. The book is an easy reader and because of the personal stories weaved into the text it makes it more approachable and interesting.