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Archive | Lee Hamilton Column

Look Up, Americans—it’s not as bad as you think 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

We are one glum country.

Trust in the federal government is at historic lows, according to Gallup. More than half of the respondents to an October Rasmussen poll think our best days are behind us. And just a few weeks ago, an NBC/Wall St. Journal poll found that the one thing Americans agree upon, whatever their race or circumstances, is that the system is stacked against people like them.

I have just one thing to say to this: could we all take a deep breath?

We deal with our challenges from a position of strength. We have friendly neighbors to the north and south, oceans to the east and west, and a growing, relatively young population. We possess abundant natural resources, the world’s most capable military force, a nuclear arsenal second to none, and a deterrent power envied by every other country on earth.

We’re doing better economically than any other major industrialized nation, and have put more people back to work since the recovery began than the rest of the industrialized world combined. Our people possess strengths in abundance. We have a remarkable reservoir of talent and a strong entrepreneurial tradition that nurtures inventiveness and draws countless people from abroad eager to make something of their future. Does that sound like a once-great nation on its knees?

I’m not blind to our shortcomings or to the severe challenges we confront. If you read this column regularly, you know that. But in the face of extraordinary difficulties, we adapt, persevere, and eventually emerge stronger. In the end, government may act slowly, and it’s often well behind where you’d wish it to be, but it does act.

All these things give our society a resilience to keep in mind the next time you see a news story or commentary hyping a pessimistic view of our future. We have a long way to go, there’s no doubt about it. But I’m reminded of a young woman a few years ago who asked me, after a bleak speech I’d given laying out the problems of the world, “Is there any hope?” My answer now is the same as it was then: Yes, of course there is.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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What lies ahead 

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

Given all the words and images devoted to the midterm elections over the past few weeks, you’d think the results had told us something vital about the future of the country. In reality, they were just a curtain-raiser. It’s the next few weeks and months that really matter.

The big question, as the old Congress reconvenes and prepares to make way for next year’s version, is whether the two parties will work more closely together to move the country forward or instead lapse back into confrontation and deadlock. I suspect the answer will be a mix: modest progress on a few issues, but no major reforms.

Overall, the deep frustration Americans feel toward Washington will likely continue. Especially since, despite the urgent problems confronting us, the House leadership has announced an astoundingly relaxed 2015 agenda that includes not a single five-day work week, 18 weeks with no votes scheduled, and just one full month in session: January.

Why might there be progress? The President wants to enhance his legacy. More politicians these days seem to prefer governing to posturing. The Republican Party may have won big in the elections, but it still cannot govern alone: it will need Democratic votes in the Senate and the cooperation of the President. And both parties want to demonstrate that they recognize they’re responsible for governing.

This is not to say that progress is inevitable. President Obama has made clear that he believes he must act to halt deportations of illegal immigrants, even if he does so without Congress; congressional Republicans say they consider unilateral action an act of war. Meanwhile, the new Republican Senate is almost certain to give the President’s nominees a hard time; while GOP senators are unlikely to want to appear too tough on Loretta Lynch, the nominee for attorney general, the gloves will almost certainly come off for nominees who must negotiate hearings after her.

In the end, 2015 will see a mix of small steps forward and backward. There’s little chance of a minimum wage increase and it’s unlikely the budget will be passed in an orderly and traditional manner. Similarly, significant and difficult issues like major entitlement and tax reform will prove hard to budge.

On the other hand, Congress can probably manage to avoid a government shutdown, and it faces decent prospects of expanding and protecting our energy boom, promoting fast-track trade authority, and funding key infrastructure needs.

Here’s the basic truth: divided government does not have to be dysfunctional. It can be made to work, and if incremental progress on small issues is the way to get started, then let’s hope Congress and the President pursue that course.

 

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Some Thoughts on Governing 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

 

I have been working in or around government for over 50 years, and if you asked me to boil down what I’ve learned to one sentence, it is this: Governing is much harder work than most people imagine. This doesn’t excuse its lapses or sluggish rate of progress, but it does help explain them.

Why is it so hard? Partly it’s the country we live in. There were 130 million Americans when I was in high school. Now we number over 300 million, with a diversity and cultural complexity that were impossible to imagine when I started out. Finding common ground, meeting complex needs, answering to an overwhelming diversity of interests — this is not work for the faint of heart.

The structure we do this with makes it even tougher. We have governments at the federal, state, and local levels, and they in turn have branches — executive, legislative and judicial — and a cornucopia of massive agencies. To solve a problem you have to navigate a slow, complex, untidy system whose transparency and accountability are always less than they should be.

This is magnified by an American public that, these days especially, wants mutually contradictory things. We want to rein in Wall Street excess, but we don’t support the regulatory structure to do it. We want affordable health care but don’t like Washington’s involvement in the health-care system. We want to shrink the deficit without any cuts in defense spending or entitlements.

Our diversity, complex structure, and difficulty settling on coherent policies make the hardest part of governing even harder. Building a consensus is the most important and most difficult part of political leadership. If politics is ultimately about the search for a remedy — I know, for many politicians it’s about ego or power or money, but I’m interested in the ideal — then you have to be able to get a consensus around that remedy. You need a majority in the U.S. House, 60 votes in the Senate, and the President’s approval. This country cannot be governed without compromise, dialogue and accommodation, and it comes apart at the seams when we go too long without them.

We often have disagreements in politics, but good politicians know that we have no choice but to work through them. The best want to bring different groups of people together, not pull them apart. They understand that not all the good ideas come from one source, and they reject the idea of constant conflict and permanent gridlock. In a divided country with a government specifically set up to divide powers, we need to follow this process — not because we want to but because we have to.

They know, too, that you have to treat every person with dignity and respect, even though the clashes may be hard. I used to watch Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill engage in tough, hard-hitting dialogue over the issues of the day, but for both of them the underlying premise was that they had to reach an agreement and move ahead. They knew civility had to be the rule — and always ended by trying to top each other with a good Irish story, doing their best to leave everyone in the room in an upbeat frame of mind.

Don’t get me wrong. The clash of ideas is important. In a dynamic system, with competing power centers and a panoply of interests trying to use their power to achieve their objectives, better policy — a policy that more nearly reflects the will of the American people — can emerge from this debate. Playing one side against the other, or merely stating the problem in order to rile up listeners — these are easy. Moving ahead to reach a solution: that’s the hard part.

Which is why our system works so slowly. It’s unwieldy, messy, and often very noisy, but most of the time, it gets there.

Yet there are no guarantees. Our system is not self-perpetuating. There is no automatic pilot. The question Abraham Lincoln asked at Gettysburg 151 years ago is as fresh today as it was then: Can a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endure? We’re still finding out, but we know one thing: It will take hard work.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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President and Congress should work together on military intervention 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

In his speech last week outlining his plans to use military force against the jihadists of the Islamic State, President Obama gave Congress only passing mention. “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL,” he said. “But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together.”

He’s right, of course. But that’s not the half of it.

Our process for deciding to use force has not caught up with these dangerous times. It has been decades since Congress asserted any meaningful role; its members prefer to avoid a potentially difficult political vote, let the President take the lead, and then criticize him if he was wrong.

There are certainly occasions when the President must act alone. If we’ve been attacked or hostilities are imminent or some emergency presents itself for which force is the only response, we’d expect the President to respond effectively.

But there are powerful political reasons for making the decision to use force abroad a joint one with Congress, in all but emergencies. When our nation must deal with controversial, complicated questions, there is great value to making the President articulate his analysis of the situation and the reasons for his decisions, and to test that thinking beyond close advisors who naturally tend to support him. The best place to do so is in Congress.

Moreover, military action supported by both the President and Congress carries more legitimacy at home and more conviction abroad. The U.S. is in a far stronger position before the world if it is clear that the branches of government are unified and we are speaking with one voice as a nation.

It is common wisdom that our Constitution is ambiguous on war powers, since it makes the President the commander in chief, yet gives Congress the ability to declare war. In a sense, though, the Constitution’s message is anything but ambiguous: by giving a role to each branch, it clearly considers the use of force to be a shared decision.

This imposes a responsibility on Congress. Congress cannot be a bystander when it comes to the grave decision to use our military abroad. It, too, needs to take ownership of decisions to use force, for the good of the American people’s understanding and acceptance of the issues at stake, and for the benefit of the nation’s profile abroad.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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The Summer of Our Discontent

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By Lee H. Hamilton

Despite these last few months of hot and lazy days, it’s been hard not to notice a cold political wind blowing through the country. The magazine Foreign Affairs captured it with its latest cover, a mockup of a travel poster featuring a crumbling U.S. Capitol with the tagline, “See America: Land of Decay and Dysfunction.”

Americans are clearly uneasy. In early August, an NBC-Wall St. Journal poll reported that three-quarters of those surveyed lacked confidence that the next generation would be better off—the most pessimistic results in the history of the poll.

This is a ground-shaking turnabout. Since well before I began my political career in the early 1960s, the keystone of our politics was an unflagging optimism that as Americans we could face head-on the task of improving our own and others’ lives and deliver on our responsibility to future generations. Now, that’s no longer the case.

Why not? Partly, it’s the economy: growth has been sluggish, we’re not generating enough good jobs, and the benefits of the recovery have flowed more to some than to the many. The growing awareness of a lopsided society—one in which a rising tide fails to lift all boats—has put many people in a surly mood. That problem of income inequality is joined to a host of others—from climate change to crumbling infrastructure to a world in which the forces of chaos and turmoil appear to be expanding.

Yet I think Foreign Affairs has nailed the biggest factor: the perceived dysfunction of our political system. Americans don’t expect miracles, but they do expect political leaders to make progress, and they haven’t been seeing much.

I can understand why so many people would be pessimistic, yet I don’t find myself sharing their fatalism. That’s because political moments are just that: moments. Over the long reach of our history, we’ve learned time and again that when our political leaders do focus on our challenges, speak to one another directly, and are determined to find a solution to our problems, they can overcome their differences and make progress.

There is no shortage of challenges facing the system. But I am convinced that they are no match for an aroused and determined public that recognizes we are all in this together, that we can adapt to changing circumstances, and that we should not give up on the system.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Why Incumbents Keep Getting Reelected

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By Lee H. Hamilton

It’s no news that Congress is unpopular. In fact, at times it seems like the only real novelty on Capitol Hill would be a jump in its approval rating.

So here’s the interesting thing: nearly three-quarters of Americans want to throw out most members of Congress, including their own representative, yet the vast majority of incumbents will be returning to Capitol Hill in January. In other words, Americans scorn Congress but keep re-electing its members. How could this be?

The first thing to remember is that members of Congress didn’t get there by being lousy politicians. They know as well as you and I that Congress is unpopular, and they’re masters at running against it — appearing to be outsiders trying to get in, rather than insiders who produce the Congress they pretend to disdain.

Just as important, incumbents enjoy an overwhelming advantage in elections. They have a large staff whose jobs focus on helping constituents. They’re paid a good salary, so they don’t have to worry about supporting their families while they campaign. They get to spend their terms effectively campaigning year-round, not just at election time, and they are able to saturate their state or district with mass mailings.

Incumbents get the honored place in the parade, the prime speaking position, the upper hand when it comes to raising money; challengers have to fight for visibility and money. In fact, challengers are at a disadvantage at almost every point in a campaign. From building name recognition to arranging meetings to building credibility with editorial boards, donors, and opinion leaders, they’re trudging uphill.

But there’s another reason incumbents keep getting re-elected that’s also worth considering: voters — that’s you and me. Most Americans don’t vote, and those who do often cast their ballots for narrow or unusual reasons. They like the way they got treated by the incumbent’s staff, or they shook his or her hand at a county fair, or they like his or her stand on a particular social or economic issue. Whatever the case, they don’t look at an incumbent’s entire record: votes on a cross-section of vital issues; willingness to work with members of different ideologies and backgrounds; ability to explain Washington back home and represent home in Washington; skill at forging consensus on tough policy challenges.

It’s really no mystery that incumbent members get re-elected. Their advantages are baked into the system.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Are we doomed to polarization? 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

We Americans are trapped in a political dilemma. We all like representative democracy, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing.

The reason for this dissatisfaction is clear. Polls in recent years detail a polarized nation, divided both ideologically and politically. In the public’s eye, Washington gets most of the blame for this.

Yet Congress and the political world around it reflect the rest of the country more than we’d like to believe. Our nation is divided ideologically. And though we deplore negative politics, we respond to it and even encourage our favorite partisans to engage in it. Anyone who becomes President today does so with nearly half the country opposed to him the day he takes office. Moreover, we face a long list of issues where decisive action may be impossible, from abortion, to gun control, to immigration. These issues divide the nation, with no clear path forward.

Our admired political system, in other words, is not working well. So how do we resolve our dilemma?

Several procedural steps could ease the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Among them, the House and Senate could begin by scheduling themselves so that they’re in session at the same time. Congressional leaders and the President ought to meet at least once a month. Open primaries would help moderate the nation’s politics, as would bipartisan redistricting commissions capable of doing away with gerrymandered districts. Increasing voter participation and improving the integrity of our elections would also help. Limiting the Senate filibuster would open up debate and forestall endless stalemates.

It’s worth remembering that American politics is dynamic, not static. Change occurs, sometimes quickly, but more often slowly. We won’t forever be this evenly divided, because public opinion will eventually evolve and the system will respond.

Which raises my final point. Even when our frustration with division and discord spills over into impatience with the system itself, our obligations as American citizens remain the same. We face complex problems that demand a willingness to exercise the values of representative democracy: tolerance, mutual respect, accepting ideological differences, working to build consensus. Our core values accept that the differences in opinions among us will continue, but also compel us to find a way through them so the country can move forward. In the end, we created our political dilemma and are responsible for working our way through it.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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The Lesson Congress should learn from the VA scandal

By Lee H. Hamilton

V-Lee-Hamilton-webLike other federal scandals before it, the mess involving VA hospitals has followed a well-trod path. First comes the revelation of misdoing. Then comes the reaction: a shocked public, an administration on the defensive, and grandstanding members of Congress. Finally, major reform bills get introduced, debated, and then put aside when the heat dies down, or the target agency gets more money thrown at the problem.

With the VA, we’re at the reform part of the cycle. In its rush to address public outrage, Congress is proposing dramatic changes that could have benefited from more thorough consideration.

The irony is that this need not have happened—not with the VA, nor with the IRS, or FEMA, or any of the other cases in recent years where the federal bureaucracy proved to be dysfunctional and Congress rushed in with a half-baked fix. Mostly what is needed is for Congress to do its job properly in the first place.

This means exercising its oversight responsibilities and catching problems before they mushroom. Diligent oversight can repair unresponsive bureaucracies, expose misconduct, and help agencies and departments become more effective.

To do this, Congress first needs to know what’s happening. Performance, budget, personnel, management challenges, major and minor problems: members of Congress ought to be experts on all of this. Understanding the facts, working cooperatively with the federal agency, and anticipating problems is a far more useful approach than Congress’s usual pattern of throwing up its hands at a scandal and blaming everyone else for the problem.

Congress must also get serious about reforming the federal bureaucracy. Federal employees deserve to feel they’re being listened to, respected, and treated fairly, but management also must have flexibility to hire and fire, and to handle personnel problems constructively.

If Congress wants federal agencies to work better, it has to work tirelessly to understand problems and help repair them. It cannot eliminate politics from this oversight process, but politics should not drive the whole oversight enterprise.

The point is that many failures of the federal bureaucracy can be avoided with robust congressional oversight. It’s a crucial part of improving the performance of government, and Congress has a duty to get ahead of problems, not lag constantly behind. Unless it’s willing to accept its responsibility for diligent oversight, the next scandal is only a matter of time.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

 

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What our country needs from the press

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

These days, the scandal involving long wait times at VA hospitals can feel like some made-in-Washington spectacle generated by politicians looking for headlines. But it isn’t. It had its genesis in a late-April report on CNN that as many as 40 veterans may have died waiting for appointments at VA hospitals in Phoenix.

This investigative piece was notable for two reasons. It’s been a while since anews story so quickly provoked such a storm of public indignation that a cabinet secretary—deservedly or not—had no choice but to resign. And it’s a reminder of just how important old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting remains to our system of government, especially when it uncovers official misdoing.

One of the basic truths about our representative democracy is that it does not work without solid information. Public officials, both elected and appointed, need to know what’s happening in the communities they serve, and the people who live in those communities need to know what the government they elect and fund is doing in their name.

A lot of forces try to distort that flow of information, or even block it altogether—from officials who aren’t living up to our expectations to politicians counting on public ignorance to lobbyists and advocates hoping to sway public opinion. This is why the press—and by this I mean print, broadcast and online journalists—is so crucial to our country’s health. It is, or ought to be, a steady, dispassionate, truth-seeking, skeptical and tough-minded force for public understanding.

In an ideal world, our media would focus on the serious side of the news. It would explore and highlight the substance of issues, not simply the politics of issues. It would detail the facts underlying a story, rather than dwelling on the personalities at play in the story. There is a place for entertainment that plays off the news—as people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have amply demonstrated—but in their search for an audience, news executives shouldn’t let it become a substitute for dogged reporting and the traditional values of accuracy, truth and fairness.

These are not easy times for journalists, however. I don’t pretend to understand all the forces that are reshaping what we see, hear and read in the news media, and I know that news executives are struggling with a host of formidable economic and social challenges.

These days, only a handful of news organizations in the country have the resources — both human and financial — to spend weeks or months chasing an investigation. Given the cuts that have stripped newsrooms of the expertise they once contained, I sometimes wonder whether the kind of reporting that brought us Watergate and uncovered the Enron scandal could still occur.

Because make no mistake: we need maximum oversight. You and I need it if we’re to be certain that misdeeds cannot hide in the darker corners of government. And Congress needs it if it’s to carry out one of its core responsibilities: overseeing the operations of government. All of us rely on the press to check abuses of power, see that laws are properly implemented, hold officials accountable, and tell those officials when their policies and operations are failing or going astray. Without a strong independent press, those in power could simply tell us what they want us to know and we’d be none the wiser. And that is no state of affairs for a democracy.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Get ready for more of the same

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By Lee H. Hamilton

 

I felt a brief surge of hope a few weeks ago about Congress. It was returning from Easter recess, and Capitol Hill was filled with talk about immigration reform, a minimum-wage bill, a spending bill to keep the government operating, and maybe even funding for transportation infrastructure. But, as I said, it was brief.

That’s because the talk turned out to be just that. Immigration reform appears headed nowhere. Likewise, tax reform and budgetary discipline. The minimum-wage increase died in the Senate. Shoring up the Highway Trust Fund, which could go bankrupt at the end of  summer, requires either massive new spending or a hefty rise in the gasoline tax — and Congress, of course, is inclined to do neither. The one step it appears ready to take is to approve a short-term spending bill, and that’s only because no one in either party wants to risk the public outrage that would attend a government shutdown right before an election.

Sure, with this year’s congressional elections fast approaching, neither party wants to force its members into tough votes. Yet listening to each party in Congress, it’s hard to imagine that they inhabit the same country. And that doesn’t seem likely to change as a result of the mid-term elections.

As a nation, we face a lot of challenges we’re not addressing. Immigration reform, tax reform, trade liberalization, reforming the International Monetary Fund — all need congressional action. So do the nation’s armed services and the Defense Department, which face serious cuts because of sequestration. Climate change isn’t even on the congressional agenda.

Which is why local governments are trying to deal with a global issue by passing zoning laws and ordinances. Indeed, congressional inaction is spurring states to cancel planned summer bridge- and road-repair projects, and big-city mayors to fill the national power vacuum by going ahead with their own minimum-wage measures, tax increases, and other initiatives designed to legislate where Congress won’t.

Here’s my fear. Congress is already derided at home as bumbling and ineffective. The perception abroad is even more worrisome: Capitol Hill’s inability to act is seen as a key piece of America’s decline as a superpower. If we’ve got several more years of drift and dysfunction ahead of us, then the institution that our founders considered to be the keystone of American democracy risks becoming not part of the solution, but the core of the problem.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

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