One thing on which everyone could agree in the tense hours leading up to the deadline for war in the Persian Gulf was that Congress -- that familiar whipping boy -- had dealt with the issue of authorizing the use of force in a manner befitting the gravity of the subject.
The weekend debate was civil and somber, always serious and often eloquent. Senators and representatives dealt respectfully with each other's arguments and showed compassion for the anguish even their opponents felt.
The debate served superbly well the requirements of representative government, informing the public and reflecting the electorate's divided views. From freshmen casting their first votes to the most senior members, there was -- for all the anguish over the consequences -- a real sense of pride that their Congress had met the responsibility the Constitution laid at its door.
Not every issue has such heavy stakes, thank goodness, nor evokes such deep and conflicting emotions. But it is worth examining, for just a moment, the elements in this situation that permitted and encouraged Congress to behave so responsibly. It was not just emotion that made this a great debate. Other things were at work:
First, Congress responded quickly to the president's call for action. His priority moved to the top of the congressional agenda and thereby became the focus of the nation's attention. That is rarely the case when the constitutional separation of powers is compounded by the voters' inclination to give control of the legislative and executive branches to opposing political parties. But it happened this time.
Second, the congressional leadership ensured that the debate would be clearly framed, by seeing that the important alternatives would be offered on an uncluttered stage. That, too, is a rarity. Often, with divided control, the president's policy is not presented until late in the debate -- or not at all. Even more often, the Democratic leadership defaults on constructing a clear alternative of its own and lets individual members -- especially in the Senate -- control the agenda with their fine-tuning, nit-picking amendments. Here, the president's policy was presented as he wished and the Democratic response was equally clear.
Third, the debate was limited in duration and simultaneous in the House and Senate. The nation was spared the spectacle of sessions being delayed by time-consuming quorum calls or curtailed so that members could dash off to do other business -- make speeches, visit constituents or raise campaign funds. No one filibustered or sought to use the many parliamentary devices that permit -- or encourage -- procrastination. The public impression was correct: for once, Congress was doing what it is paid to do -- make policy decisions.
Fourth, elected officials, not their staffs, controlled what happened. Never in 35 years have I seen more lawmakers talking seriously with each other about the choice they were about to make. Never have I seen more of them retire to their offices to write their own speeches explaining how and why they reached their decision. Far too often, senators and representatives function simply as the most visible parts of a swollen Capitol Hill bureaucracy.
This time, they were legislators. More than anything else, it was this sense of personal interaction -- of being a Congress in the way that the Continental Congress was -- which created the feeling of pride among the members.
Fifth and finally, the interest groups muted their lobbying enough to allow genuine two-way communication between lawmakers and constituents to take place. There was lobbying on both sides -- by the administration and by a variety of ad hoc groups, mainly calling for a delay in resort to arms. But it was conducted without arm-twisting, promises of campaign funds or threats of political retaliation.
As a result, senators and representatives heard clearly the voice of their own voters, mainly in an outpouring of phone messages. And they focused on making sure those constituents knew -- through home-town newspaper, radio and television interviews -- what they were doing and why. The result was representative government in a form Washington all too rarely sees these days.
Not every issue requires a great debate in Congress. Many mundane matters are adequately handled by the slow-grinding routine of the legislative process, with pulling and hauling by the executive branch, individual senators and representatives and interest groups.
But if it were possible to handle just a few big and consequential issues each year -- designated in advance by the president and the congressional leaders -- in the fashion that the Persian Gulf decision was handled, what a boon it would be for our democracy. If most or all of these five elements could be reproduced in other cases, then it might just be possible for Congress to recover its reputation and for the voters to believe, once again, that the government works for them.