When it comes to policy, Americans are an impatient people.
We see a problem — the war in Iraq or our failing health care system — and want it resolved as soon as possible. Our expectations for quick action are at their highest when we vote for change in the Congress. So it’s no surprise that many Americans wonder why, after making their preferences on Iraq clear last November, it is taking Congress so long to act.
As the Capitol Hill wrestling match about the war suggests, Congress is not especially suited to radical or immediate change. It took seven years of effort, after all, before Congress finally cut off funding for the Vietnam War — and by the time it acted, there were no longer U.S. troops stationed there.
The plain truth is that Congress is comfortable with incrementalism, not speed.
It is not immediately clear why this should be so. Aren’t members of Congress there to represent the American people? And if Americans use their votes in congressional elections to register discontent or promote a change in policy, shouldn’t that be reflected quickly in the Senate and House chambers?
One way to think about this might be to remember your trips to a video store to rent a movie. On your own, you can choose pretty quickly. Go with one other person and, inevitably, it takes longer. And if you go with a couple of friends or family members, you can be there for a half hour arguing about your choices.
So imagine what happens when 535 members of Congress — each representing a different constituency, each with his or her own opinions, each attuned to different voices in this diverse, multi-faceted nation of ours — have to grapple with issues as complex as war, our health care system, the tax code or the perilous state of our fiscal health.
Forging an approach that can command a majority of votes takes creativity, flexibility, persuasion, horse-trading and, above all, time. It might require year after year of effort before legislation can make it out of a committee, let alone pass on both the Senate and House floors and be signed into law by the president.
This explains, in part, why Congress tends to react to problems or to the president’s initiatives, rather than instigating fundamental change on its own. Every so often it can muster the will to rewrite how the United States behaves — as it did in the 1980s when it opted for sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa against the objections of President Ronald Reagan.
For the most part, however, Congress prefers to tackle small slices of a large problem, rather than the entire problem at once.
So we get health coverage for children in low-income families or an expansion of prescription coverage for seniors rather than a comprehensive remake of our health care system or a basic rewrite of the Medicare laws.
We get tinkering every year with the tax code, rather than such radical measures as moving to a so-called “flat tax” or closing for once and all the loopholes that special interests have won through the years.
And we see a series of legislative initiatives about Iraq — first a nonbinding resolution, then a bid to enact some limits in a supplemental appropriations bill, then a focus on the defense appropriations bill and then attempts to use other legislative vehicles to change the federal government’s approach toward the war.
As frustrating as all this can be to Americans who want change right away, this gradual approach often serves the nation well. It allows the diverse and often conflicting views of the body politic to be heard and, generally, incorporated into the final product. In economic affairs, it promotes the economy’s stability, rather than forcing major changes and their unintended consequences through the system.
There is a risk to incrementalism, though: that the problem you’re trying to address grows faster than your ability to get your arms around it.
That’s what appears to be happening in health care; since the failure of the Clinton health plan during the early 1990s, the system seems only to have careened closer to the brink of unworkability. And it might be what is happening with the ever-expanding debt that our government is amassing, a habit that economic experts agree has the potential to be disastrous.
It takes a lot to overcome Congress’ preference for tackling issues piece by piece, but it’s not impossible. Eventually, when basic problems go unchecked, they balloon to the point where public patience with incrementalism wears thin.
This happened during the Clinton years with welfare reform, it is taking place now with the war in Iraq, it shows signs of occurring in health care and it is bound to happen should our chronic fiscal indebtedness cause widespread economic hardship.
Faced with enough pressure, Congress can face up to fundamental problems and act on them.
Whether it feels that pressure, though, is up to the American people.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.