You can lay the groundwork to reform Congress

The first three words of the U.S. Constitution are, “We the People.” The Constitution itself, our institutions of government, the democratic process — all were established to give Americans a voice in their own governance.

So let me ask you some questions about Congress today. Do you think the voice of ordinary Americans resounds strongly in its hallways and chambers? Does Congress produce legislation that resolves our differences and brings us closer together? Do you believe that the political system produces members of Congress who fairly and effectively represent the diversity of this country and address our real, long-term challenges?

I thought not.

This is why it’s past time for comprehensive reform of Congress. Representative democracy is being undermined by the rising power of big money, the challenges of governing a country as large and diverse as ours, the problems brought by rising economic inequality, and too many citizens who were never taught the skills needed to make the pragmatic judgments necessary in a representative democracy.

Part of what we need is outside the purview of any single institution. We lack a robust system of civic education, designed to produce an engaged, informed electorate able to sort fact from fiction in a complicated world.

But there are also steps we need our lawmakers to take. Partisan gerrymandering has become a scandal; we have to fight efforts to repress votes; and we need to make it easier for third parties to break into the system.

Greater transparency from those in power or those seeking to influence those in power truly matters. Disclosure of campaign donations, disclosure of foreign money’s track through our political system, disclosure of special-interest spending – all of this should be a habit in any self-respecting representative democracy.

On Capitol Hill, members need to fund and then rely on independent sources of information they can trust, rather than special interests who too often lay down their own interpretation of the facts as a legislative foundation. And Congress needs to revitalize the institution itself and restore its power to the president.

This is where you come in. The changes I’m advocating will not come about without citizen action. Our lawmakers have become too comfortable with the status quo they and their predecessors have built in recent decades. Unless they fix the system, the loss of faith in our process and our institutions will be almost impossible to reverse.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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