How we can bring Congress back to life

Niko Malhotra

Congressional gridlock has been the central force driving political inaction in Washington and Americans’ frustration with the political system. Consumed by partisan conflicts, our representatives seem incapable of passing legislation to address our country’s most pressing concerns, from immigration reform to crumbling infrastructure. Williams students, as the future stewards of American democracy, have the opportunity and responsibility to return Congress to its proper role as the heart of American democracy and counter congressional abdication within the political process. 

In recent years, Congress has become a platform for public theater, in which representatives try to bolster their public image rather than dedicating their duty to improving public policy. Politicians of both parties focus too much on their media presence and public perception instead of doing the difficult work of drafting legislation and reaching compromise. It is far easier to blast political opponents on social media and engage in culture wars than to actually solve the important issues on the minds of all Americans. 

One of the key challenges to disrupting the partisan gridlock is that congressional leaders dominate and drive the legislative process, depriving individual members of responsibility. The legislative process we learned about in primary school is nonexistent. Rather than going through a committee markup process, bills are crafted by congressional leaders behind closed doors and then put to a vote without giving representatives or the public adequate time to read the bill. As a result, special interests and lobbyists have disproportionate influence on lawmaking, and individual representatives are detached from the legislative process, voting how their leaders direct them.

Additionally, abuse of Senate and House rules has been detrimental to addressing the nation’s most important problems. Since 1996, Congress has not passed a yearly budget, rather relying on omnibus spending bills, where congressional leaders lump all government spending into one bill for a single vote. Furthermore, the use of the filibuster has surged to a point where every bill effectively needs 60 votes to pass the Senate; just 30 years ago, it was rarely used to stall legislation. These barriers to legislative action, as well as reduced incentives for compromise due to political polarization, have resulted in a slowdown of major legislation. 

What can young people do to restore the functioning of Congress and ensure that the people’s work actually gets done? We must press our representatives to come up with concrete solutions, not merely political rhetoric, that can address our challenges in areas such as healthcare and the economy. Through social media, protests, and grassroots organizing, young people have the opportunity to change the narrative and bring our important issues to the forefront of the national debate. Congressional inaction is threatening the long-term health of Social Security and preventing necessary steps to protect privacy rights in the digital era, but we have the power to change the Washington status quo. Our representatives are ultimately beholden to us, and through student activism, we can advocate for compromise and real policy action in Washington. Additionally, we must call out members of Congress when they prioritize media appearances over drafting legislation and push for concrete changes to remove archaic rules that slow down the legislative process. 

The civic engagement of Williams students has the power to call attention to this urgent issue for our democracy and ensure that we can move forward from this moment of congressional stagnation towards an era of a reinvigorated legislature. We must not accept Congress’ present reality as permanent, and we as students can take important actions to create a functioning democracy and strengthen the institutions upon which it relies. 

Niko Malhotra ’24 is from Falmouth, Maine.