By the Honorable Robert H. Michel

From the Archives: This essay appeared in the July/August 1992 issue of We the People, the Congressional Institute’s former magazine about Congress. It is reproduced in full, with only minor typographical edits.

Rep. Bob Michel speaks at the Congressional Institute’s first conference in 1987. (Photo credit: Marty LaVor)

The United States House of Representatives, in which I have served for more than 36 years, is at a critical historical juncture. Shaken by scandal, burdened by archaic processes, the subject of criticism and ridicule from the morning talk-show sound-bites to the late-evening Jay Leno monologues, the House is in trouble.

The question usually asked is: How do we fix what is broken?

But a better question is: What exactly is broken? Is it only the processes and procedures of the House? Or do our current problems of representative government lie deeper?

Yes, undoubtedly a great part of the reason for public dissatisfaction is that the House needs comprehensive reform. But reform of the institution—which I strongly support—is not all we need. We also need a renewal of the contract of democracy between the people and their elected representatives, a binding agreement that has been severed and needs to be repaired.

Essence of the Contract

“Contract”? The word might sound too cold and legalistic to describe the relationship between a free people and their representatives. But our nation was founded on a contract, a binding agreement in which—in the words of the Declaration of Independence—the founders, “in the name, and with the authority of the good people” pledged “to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

In short, at the heart of the American experiment is a pledge by each of us to do all we can to make our nation work. A nation thus founded demands something more from its citizens than abstract adherence to general principles of good government. It demands personal, individual, passionate commitment to, and participation in, our form of government.

That means informed participation by citizens, not just when a special-interest bill is before the House, but when a principle of good government must be upheld even in the face of popular opposition. It means elected Representatives must cast every vote keeping in mind the lives, the fortunes, and the sacred honor of those who elected them. A Representative best “re-presents” his community’s values and views in the House when voters, in the demands they make on him, demonstrate the same principles of sound government they demand from him.

We need a renewal of the old understanding of the roles of the electors and the elected. This renewal is only possible with the cooperation of the American people. The House does not exist in a vacuum. Despite what many pundits believe, it does not stand apart from society. How it acts, how it legislates, is directly influenced by the participation—or non-participation—of the electorate.

Need, Cost and Rightness

When I first came to the House in 1956, there was a simple contract between my constituents and me. In those relatively uncomplicated times, the people chose a Representative who would best reflect their values and their views in Washington. At the heart of the electoral contract was a binding agreement—by those elected and by the voters—to defend freedom, guard tax dollars, and advocate community values.

Most important of all: Is it right? Even if the bill benefits our community in the short run, will it be at the expense of some fundamental economic or political principle?

Voters not only expected us to ask those questions (in the form of amendments we would introduce to bills), but in fact demanded that we ask them. I can recall in the days going back home on weekends and boasting to the folks who had sent me to the House that I had resisted “pork-barrel” legislation—and would get applauded for doing so.

It is difficult to pinpoint when the nature of this contract began to change, but I believe it was in the mid-1960s, during the height of the Great Society. A veritable torrent of domestic legislation was proposed and passed. Against the mighty surge of that flood, improving and perfecting amendments proved all but impotent. In the final analysis, you were either for or against the direction of the spending torrent – and the easiest thing was to float along.

Eventually—the process took years—the question in the democratic contract no longer was how much this program cost and how will we pay for it, but how much of this project can be directed to my district? To pose such a question is to alter the original contract in such a way that a Congressman ceases to be seen as someone thwarting the passage of big-spending legislation, and becomes the head of a raiding party, trying to bring home as much federal tax goodies as he can.

This change in the fundamental contract between the people and their Representatives did not occur all at once. There were pockets of resistance to the idea that Representatives were sent to Washington primarily to redistribute tax dollars. And, of course, most voters persisted in demanding that Representatives continue to defend and to reflect community values in their personal as well as public lives.

But something fundamental had changed during those years, something that altered the provisions of the contract of democracy. More and more, bills came to the floor of the House for a vote under a “closed rule,” leaving zero chance to amend it. Instead of participants in the legislative process creatively changing bills through amendments, we were asked to be automatons with rubber stamps labeled “Yes” or “No.” The old contract of democracy was broken—and it has remained broken.

The Four-Word Mandate

Today, in this grim season of the House’s institutional discontent, I believe we have to reestablish the original contract of democracy. We must reform the House not just for the sake of appearing to be “doing something,” but because a reformed House can provide an institutional structure to help a Congressman better defend limited government and the principle of accountability to the people.

We should return to the process of amending bills to improve a proposal instead of being asked to take it or leave it. We need sufficient time for debate, and a search for alternatives rather than the by-now ritualistic invocation of federal spending as the court of first and last resort.

But most importantly we first need to reestablish the proper roles between the contracting parties: The people must be informed and informative, and their Representatives must be responsible and responsive. What exactly ought those four words to mean?

INFORMED. In the contract of democracy, the people ultimately decide what the nature of the contract will be, and the people must impose upon themselves the discipline to make their part of the contract work. To fulfill their end of the contract, voters must know what their Congress is doing. These days, that isn’t as easy as it sounds.

You would think that in a society as flooded in information as ours, staying informed about Congress would be easy. But, paradoxically enough, when we have everything from CNN and C-SPAN to national newsmagazines, network news shows, and daily newspapers to inform us, most Americans have little idea of day-to-day House realities. Congressional scandals are reported with gusto, major bills get a bit of television news time—but day-to-day operations simply do not exist, so far as the media are concerned. The House—unlike the White House and its abundant coverage—is the undiscovered country of the news media.

In one recent poll of American attitudes towards their House, eight in 10 people disapproved of the job the Congress is doing. But 33 percent of the people did not know which party controlled the Congress. Only 11 percent of the people knew that the current Majority control all the committees in the House, while 32 percent believed, mistakenly, that the Majority controls only half of all the committees.

It’s no coincidence that TV’s becoming the major source of information about government coincided with the erosion of the contract of democracy. Despite the presence of many talented and informed TV news reporters, the medium itself emphasizing image over substance and quick sound-bite over painstaking development of complicated argument—simply is not suited to explain what goes on in the House.

When Process Equals Policy

If the House Committee on Rules, dominated by the Majority, refuses to allow the Minority to offer amendments, the procedure itself changes the outcome of whatever legislative proposal is before us. But television news, and most print reporting, aren’t equipped to cover the things that don’t happen (like amendments ruled out of order). Why not? Because they have no “visual element,” no compelling electronic image to convey to viewers an event that did not occur, even when its non-occurrence is important.

Therefore, the one point that the Minority thinks essential—its inability to offer an amendment—does not get reported. That is the nature of the media problem: What happens (and what not happens) in the House isn’t conveyed to the voters, who then have to make choices based on incomplete information. As Jefferson said: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” The media, as well as the House, needs reform, if the contract of democracy is to be reestablished.

INFORMATIVE. Constituents must make clear to their representatives exactly what it is they have sent him or her to Washington to do. If a Representative is supposed to be someone who just votes for every spending bill that comes along, in the hope that some money will fall off the tax-dollar wagon for his district, a certain kind of person is needed. But if the people want their representative to make the tough calls, to actually “represent” local values in the House—which means sometimes voting against bill immediately popular back home but which, in the Member’s judgment, are ultimately bad for the country—then they should look for a different kind of individual.

But the representative cannot know this unless the people are informative, letting him or her know what is on their minds. All too often communication between the folks back home and their Representative in Washington breaks down (most folks don’t write or call), is monopolized by special interests or organized groups (letter-writing campaigns) or exists only when a specific kind of bill is to come before the House. What Representatives need is informed feedback, from all segments of the community.

The Representative’s Duty

RESPONSIBLE. According to the dictionary, to be responsible means to “be able to answer for one’s conduct and obligations,” “able to choose between right and wrong,” and to be “politically answerable.” Every House Member must be responsible in these terms.

Buck-passing for failures both personal and public, moral amnesia that permeates a politician’s approach to ethical questions, and a belief that somehow a House seat belongs to one by semi-divine right—these are all examples of the political irresponsibility and non-accountability that have led the American people to anger and dismay at the current state of the House. A Congressman may be articulate, powerful and knowledgeable; but if he or she is not responsible, the job is not being done.

RESPONSIVENESS. How often I have witnessed the political demise of a colleague because he or she failed to remember the first law of representation: Keep in touch with the folks back home. Listen to what they are saying; reach out to them to find out what they are thinking, even on issues that are not yet before the Congress; meet with a wide variety of constituents; and be responsive to what they tell you.

This does not mean that you always agree with what you are hearing from them. It does not mean that on every issue you have to vote the way the majority in your district wants you to (although, if you don’t, you had better be prepared to explain why). It means that you listen—not just hear, but really listen—and that you owe them an explanation for your votes and your conduct.

The Courtesy of Debate

Yet even if we achieved these goals, they will do nothing to re-establish the contract of democracy unless what we do is guided by civility, mutual respect, and the willingness to exchange views and not just swap insults. Perhaps nostalgia distorts my memory, but it seems to me that what might be called a sense of public courtesy is not as evident in today’s political discourse as in the past.

In any event, in a pluralistic society like ours, civility isn’t a luxury; it is an absolute necessity for hard-hitting debate in the public arena.

My experience has taught me how much of a two-way street representative government really is: Only when the people and their Representatives each carry out their part of the contract of democracy does democracy work for everyone. If the current troubles of the House, of the institution, bring about reform and a renewal of that contract, perhaps all the embarrassment and suffering will not have been in vain.

The Honorable Robert H. Michel served as a U.S. Representative from Illinois from 1957 until 1995. He was Republican Leader from January 1981 until 1995. Prior to Congress, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II, including the D-Day Invasion of Normandy.