Congress Needs to Reassert Leadership in Public Debate

CONGRESS is worried, as always, about its public image, and rightly so.

For a partial explanation, Congress needs to look no further than the nearest mirror. Members accept too much corporate or trade association hospitality and then make up a lame excuse about how they are raising money for charity or getting a different point of view on an important issue. If members of Congress want to help a charity, they can write a check. If they want to see a lobbyist (and these contacts are useful, notwithstanding the public perception), a Congress member's office is the place to do it.

The issue of free, reserved parking spaces near the terminals at Washington's National and Dulles airports tied the Senate in knots last month. This is a small matter when compared to the problem of welfare reform, but the sight of such spaces - which are often empty - does not sit well with ordinary travelers who park two or three miles away and ride shuttle buses. Every member of Congress has a junior staff employee who could drive him or her to and from an airport. Bill Clinton used to do this for members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he was a part-time committee messenger working his way through Georgetown University.

Congress needs to clean up its act with respect to perquisites, but its problem is more profound. Congress gives the impression that it does not believe the public is interested in serious discussion of serious issues. Try having such a discussion with a member and see how quickly it lapses into slogans or jargon, such as ``Three strikes and you're in for life'' and ``No work, no welfare.''

Television has accelerated this decline in political discourse; but Congress has acquiesced in it and the public has contributed to it, because the public expects the wrong things from Congress. In this respect, Congress's bad public image is the public's fault.

Congress was intended to be a parochial body. Any member who does not represent the legitimate interests of his or her state or district is not going to remain a member long, nor should he or she. But there is a difference between this kind of representation and shoveling out pork, or kowtowing to the latest poll, as a substitute for sound public policy.

THERE are other serious flaws in public perceptions of the role Congress is supposed to play in American government. Ross Perot is regrettably not alone in the half-baked belief that we can develop a kind of nationwide electronic town meeting in which people would decide complicated issues.

Frederick T. Sleeper, who did polling for George Bush in 1988 and 1992, has gone so far as to call for rethinking our commitment to representative democracy in favor of electronic direct democracy. If such a system were in effect today, we would probably already have a national health plan, and it would almost certainly be less satisfactory than what we are eventually going to get out of Congress after months of talk. And if you think the White House has flip-flopped on Bosnia and Haiti, wait until you see what a national electronic town meeting would do.

The public disaffection with Congress is so great that we are in danger of getting the wrong solutions. Term limits is one. A line item veto is another. Poll-driven legislation is a third, even if it doesn't go so far as an electronic town meeting.

Most members of Congress are serious and intelligent, but they've let themselves be pushed into a framework in which it is difficult to play their rightful role. Congress needs to put its own house in order, but only as a prelude to reasserting its leadership in the public debate of important issues and in the formation of public opinion.

Edmund Burke put it well in addressing his constituents in England more than 200 years ago:

``Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.... What sort of reason is that in which the determination precedes the discussion, in which one set of men deliberate and another decide?''

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