This is a time of great testing for Congress. The pressure to move quickly is intense, and it is not an institution built for that purpose.

Yet Congress acts with unaccustomed swiftness when needed. The House passed the first relief measure quickly, and the Senate acted the following week. Clearly, lawmakers took the need for speed to heart, and in a bipartisan way.

There’s a key but basic fact to remember about how Congress works: it’s governed by a majority. This seems like a very simple thing to say, but the reality is that it is not always easy to reach.

This is compounded when, as now, each chamber is under the control of a different party. Still, while there are never any guarantees, at times of national crisis the math becomes much easier to achieve.

That’s despite the fact that members can vote any way they want to, and Congress is where all the cross-currents and needs of a complicated nation converge. Congress — at all times, but especially now — is beset by organized interests weighing in.

Members of Congress are also listening to the no-doubt urgent messages they’re getting from their constituents and making the political calculations that, even at the most dire times, are very much in the mix on Capitol Hill. You can see why arriving at agreements swiftly is such difficult work.

Which is why, now more than ever, everything depends on the leadership. Even in calm times, the key to the functioning of Congress rests overwhelmingly with the presiding officers of the House and Senate, and with their teams.

At the moment, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are conveying that they intend to keep Congress on an even keel as they work on relief and stimulus legislation.

This is obviously a time of great peril, with immense stakes. We are a democracy, and our challenge — and Congress’s in particular — is to respond as the situation demands while preserving the best that democratic governance offers: solutions to the country’s problems that reflect the best thinking and collective wisdom of a great, diverse, and creative nation.

It is not written in the stars that Congress can make it work, but the evidence so far is that in this crisis, when we need it to come through, Congress can do important work well and do it in a bipartisan way.

{br class=”Apple-interchange-newline” /}Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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