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Government needs to work better 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

Whoever wins next November’s presidential election, it’s a sure bet that at some point he or she will vow to set the federal government on the straight and narrow. It’s a bracing sentiment. But you’ll want to take it with a grain of salt.

Our history is filled with remarkable government accomplishments. Our involvement in World War II and hands-on approach to the postwar reconstruction of Europe and Japan, our role in ending the Cold War, the interstate highway system, extending the right to vote to all our citizens…There’s a long list of crucially important efforts the federal government has executed well.

Yet every American ought also to be alarmed by an expanding list of missteps and blunders. In a report last month for the highly capable and too-little-noticed Volcker Alliance—whose goal is to improve government effectiveness—NYU Professor Paul C. Light drew attention to what he calls “a shocking acceleration in the federal government’s production of highly visible mistakes, miscalculations, and maladministration.”

A moment’s reflection will call to mind a sobering litany of failure, from the inability to stop the 9/11 attacks to shortfalls in the care of our veterans. The reasons range from muddled policy or insufficient resources to outright misconduct, but the question isn’t really what or who is to blame. It’s how we turn things around and reverse the accelerating pace of breakdowns.

To start, while a lot of hard work goes into creating policy on Capitol Hill and in the agencies, much less attention goes to how it will be carried out. Both branches need to focus on how they will assess effectiveness, anticipate problems, make sure that staffing is adequate, and provide necessary resources.

Second, if making policy today is complicated, so is implementing it. This means that we need skillful people within the government to carry it out, which means hiring them, retaining them, and making sure they’re held to account with well-conceived metrics.

Finally, too often these days the losers of a policy debate turn to torpedoing it. Some government failures aren’t the result of muddled policy, lack of leadership, or incompetence; they’re the result of what amounts to calculated sabotage. This needs to end.

Most Americans want government to work well. When a policy is adopted, it needs to be executed effectively. Whoever our next President turns out to be, let’s hope he or she takes that charge seriously.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information about educational resources and programs, visit www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government,” and share our postings with your friends.

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A very tough job 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

You know who I feel sorry for? Today’s politicians.

You’ll laugh at this, but hear me out. This is a very tough time to be a politician, whether running for office or trying to lead while holding office. The women and men who’ve undertaken to represent us face circumstances that make campaigning and governing unusually challenging right now.

Not that they’ve ever been easy, at least in my lifetime. Our size, diversity, and multi-layered government structure; the number and complexity of the problems our political leaders face daily; and the divided politics of our time, which make settling on coherent policies especially challenging—all these combine to make being a politician in a representative democracy one of the most demanding jobs around. Several features of the current political landscape, however, give politics a sharper edge and make it far more difficult to navigate.

For starters, our political discourse, from city councils to state legislatures to Congress, is less forgiving than it was a generation ago. Political opponents are no longer just people with whom we happen to disagree; they’re people who need to be shamed into silence. They can’t be trusted, they can’t be negotiated with, they’re self-serving and unpatriotic, and when they’re not incompetent, they’re scheming, ill-informed and ill-intentioned. This rhetoric is not just calculated demonization. The extent to which politicians today genuinely distrust the other side is something new in our politics. It makes progress on the issues of the day extremely complicated.

This is exacerbated by politicians’ awareness that voters have lost confidence in our traditional political leadership and are searching hard for alternatives. You see this in the rise of candidates like Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left, who speak to voters who are looking for someone to express their anger and frustration.

Why are Americans upset, and more willing than usual to rally to outlying candidates? I don’t think there’s any great mystery. For starters, we have a society that is deeply concerned about economic insecurity; as the Pew Research Center reported recently, the American middle class—for decades the stable anchor of economy and society—is in trouble and no longer in the majority. People are moving up, but most are not, and some are moving down. Small wonder that immigration causes so much concern.

You can add to this the fear of terrorism and a deeply unsettled view of the major changes taking place in American society: the rise of big data and its attendant loss of privacy; the migration flows that whittle away at some communities, while causing others to change unrecognizably from month to month; the tensions that diversity, arguments over gender, and racial conflict all produce; the fluid and ever-changing patterns of religious belief and identity that have shaken many communities loose from the institutions that once moored them; the decline of the traditional, objective media. America today is an uneasy place, and we see this reflected in voters’ frustration and pessimism.

With next year’s elections still almost a year away, voters are mostly just looking around. They like candidates who express their anger and resentment, but that’s in part because they’re not measuring candidates by whether they seem fit for the presidency or Congress or the governor’s mansion. Voters are just now starting to hold candidates up to the standards of the offices they seek; as they do, the unsettled political environment in which we find ourselves will grow a bit less uncertain.

But the long-term issues—the fears and uncertainty and the forces driving them–won’t have gone away. Which is why I feel great sympathy for politicians at the moment. The skills we need in our political leaders, like the ability to approach those with whom they disagree with a measure of good will and an openness to negotiation and compromise, are not held in high esteem by the voters or by the loudest voices in their own parties. It’s easy for a politician to pander to anger and frustration. It’s much harder to face a roomful of disparate opinions and forge a consensus behind a solution. Yet that is precisely what many politicians recognize our country needs.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information about educational resources and programs, visit www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government,” and share our postings with your friends.

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Sadly, Congress seems okay with being weak 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

Not many people outside of Capitol Hill paid attention last month when the congressional leadership released next year’s legislative schedule. Its headline feature is a strikingly long summer recess: half of July and all of August, along with a few spotty weeks of work before the November election. There are plenty of other breaks as well; in all, the House will be in session for less than one-third of the year, and the Senate only a bit longer.

I suppose we could take Congress to task for not working hard enough, and I’m sure plenty of people will do so. But the schedule reveals an even more serious issue: it suggests that Congress, or at least its leadership, is unconcerned about how ineffective and even irrelevant the institution has become when it comes to policy making.

This has been a long-term trend, with plenty of responsibility to be laid at the feet of political leaders in both parties. Even some recent signs of progress, like the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aren’t enough. Many people, within Washington and beyond, now take Congress’s weakened state for granted, almost as if it’s the natural order of things.

That is because wherever you turn, Congress has lost ground as an institution. The contrast with the presidency is especially stark. Every President in recent memory has expanded the power of his office, and for good reason. The modern world demands quick, decisive action, and Americans like presidents who act forcefully. Yet the result is that the balance of power has shifted dangerously toward the President.

This is especially apparent on two fronts where Congress ought to be resolute. One is the budget — the basic blueprint for the government — which is now largely the President’s responsibility. Congress cannot even produce a real budget any more; every year, it kicks the serious fiscal questions down the road — from hard decisions on tax reform to even harder decisions on spending. Its deference to the President is even more striking when it comes to committing U.S. forces overseas. Members of Congress happily criticize the President on issue after issue, lamenting that they cannot trust him and cannot work with him. Yet on some of the most important questions the government faces — whether, how, where, and when to intervene using military force — they defer utterly to the White House.

They do the same with the regulatory agencies. Members love to criticize the EPA, for instance, but rarely put their words into legislative action, and they fail repeatedly to do the kind of routine, painstaking oversight of federal agencies that would help eliminate wasted resources and bureaucratic overreach.

At the same time, they’ve handed economic power to the Federal Reserve. Fifty years ago, the ordinary American who could name the chair of the Fed was rare. Today, it’s hard to pick up a newspaper without reading about Janet Yellen and the Fed’s board of governors. Because Congress has essentially given up on trying to shape fiscal policy, it has put the Fed in charge of keeping the economy growing.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become the principal way our country deals with a host of tough issues like abortion and affirmative action. These are matters that, ideally, would be wrestled through the legislative process. Instead, they’re up to the Court.

Congress these days is failing to assert its responsibilities under the Constitution — it is far from being the co-equal branch our Founders envisioned. And many of its members agree. They don’t believe the institution they serve is doing its job — they’d point, for instance, to immigration reform, which Speaker Paul Ryan recently announced the House would not even touch next year, despite the pressing need. Here is an issue practically begging for rolled-up sleeves on Capitol Hill. Yet instead of action, they get a congressional schedule that sends members back to their districts for most of the year.

Which may be the most distressing part of it all. Instead of being concerned enough about Congress’s weakness and inactivity to take action, its leaders, at least, appear to believe that many of the toughest issues on the national agenda are beyond their capability to resolve.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government.” 

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Members of Congress need to spend more Time on Capitol Hill 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

When Paul Ryan became House Speaker a few weeks ago, he made it clear that he has no intention of spending too much time in Washington. His wife and children are in Wisconsin, he pointed out, and he plans to commute, as he’s done since he got elected to Congress. “I just work here,” he told CNN, “I don’t live here.”

I have great sympathy for Ryan’s urge to strike a balance between family and work. It is very, very tough for every member, let alone the Speaker, to live and work far from home, and to weigh constantly whether to be in Washington or back in the district. I remember that when I served in Congress, I felt I was in the wrong place wherever I happened to be. If I was home in Indiana, I missed important meetings on Capitol Hill. When I was in Washington, the calendar in Indiana was filled with events I should have been attending.

Yet while we should sympathize with the compromises members of Congress have to make between their duties in Washington and their responsibilities back home, there’s no question where they must be to discharge their public responsibilities. If we want a well-functioning Congress, they need to be in Washington more.

When I first got elected to Congress in 1964, members didn’t have to split time between their colleagues on Capitol Hill and their families back in the district, because most of us moved our families to Washington. But over the years, the politics of the country have grown strongly anti-Washington. Members of Congress do not want to be associated with the city. They want to show they haven’t been seduced by the lifestyle of the Nation’s Capital or adopted an “inside-the-beltway” mindset. They take pride in rejecting the elitism of Washington. Today’s politics make it hard to argue that members should be spending more time on Capitol Hill.

Yet as Washington Post writer Dana Milbank noted recently in an insightful column on the topic, “It’s no mere coincidence that in the time this trend has taken hold, much of what had previously existed in Washington disappeared: civility, budget discipline, big bipartisan legislation and just general competence. In place of this have come bickering, showdowns, shutdowns and the endless targeting of each other for defeat in the next election.”

Expanding the Capitol Hill workweek, in other words, isn’t just a symbolic gesture. It’s one of the keys to reversing congressional dysfunction.

For starters, you have to get to know your colleagues in order to do business with them. The amenities are crucial in politics, even more than in most spheres of working life. In any legislature, whether it’s on Capitol Hill or in a state capital or in City Hall, the very nature of the job is going to involve disagreement. Yet everyone there is there to solve problems together; they have no choice but to work together. It’s hard to attack a person you know well, but even more important, getting to know one another—and one another’s families—is an essential lubricant for resolving the issues you confront together.

Second, drafting legislation is highly demanding, because the core of it involves building consensus. This takes time. It can’t be forced. Members have to have the time and room to consider the options, look for common ground, and think through alternatives. Politicians, in other words, need sufficient time to be good politicians and good legislators. The array of tough issues that face Congress can’t be dealt with by part-time legislators,

which is what they are right now. Members of Congress work hard, but they do not work hard at legislating. They work hard at constituent relations and raising money and campaigning. Legislating, whether we like it or not, takes a five-day week, not the three they put in at the moment.

What I’m arguing for here will not be popular with members of Congress, and it certainly won’t get a warm reception from their families. But they are elected to do the job of legislating. For the good of the institution they serve, and the work product they owe the nation, members need to spend more time in Washington.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Washington’s latest deal: little cause for celebration

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

You can understand why President Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle sought to cast their end-of-October budget deal in the best possible light. They avoided a potentially catastrophic national default. They reduced the possibility of a government shutdown. And they raised the debt ceiling until March 2017, taking that bargaining chip off the table until the next president is in the White House.

Still, for all their hard work, our political leaders indulged in two bad habits that they really need to kick, because they wreak havoc with effective and efficient government and cost taxpayers a pile of money.

First, while they gave themselves some breathing room before the next time the debt ceiling has to be raised, they will nonetheless have to raise the debt ceiling eventually. They should have abolished it, or at least suspended it.

The debt ceiling has become a political pawn, used repeatedly as leverage by opposition parties to make demands of the President. It has driven the persistent national game of “chicken” that has so tarnished Congress’s image in recent decades. The legislative maneuvering surrounding each debt ceiling bill consumes huge amounts of legislative time that is better spent on other matters.

The second bad habit is equally pernicious: the budget deal did little to shift Congress from its reliance on continuing resolutions. The CR, as it’s known, was designed to keep government operating for a few days or weeks while congressional negotiators worked out the budget. In recent decades, though, it has become the way we fund the government.

Continuing resolutions bypass the appropriations bills written by specialized committees and provide a favored few interests a bonanza. They also keep the federal government—and hence state and local agencies that rely on federal commitments—in “handcuffs,” as a recent article in Politico put it. The CR puts the government on automatic pilot, avoids hundreds of difficult funding and policy decisions, and has become a substitute for working hard to pass a budget by the regular process. It lacks transparency, sidesteps good budgeting, puts all the power in the hands of a few congressional leaders, and invites Congress to act in a crisis mode.

Do you want the Congress to work better? If so, ask your favorite member to think big and not lock into a failing system. A good start would be to kick these two bad habits.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Congress’s problems are deep-seated but fixable 

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

A lot of ink is being spilled about the speakership drama in the U.S. House and the turmoil besetting the Republicans who run Capitol Hill. There is a pervasive sense in Washington that Congress has gone, at least temporarily, off the rails.

All this attention on the crises of the moment suggests that resolving them will fix Congress. It won’t. Three deep-seated issues must be addressed before Congress can return to a constructive role.

The first is that Congress should work its will by letting members vote on the major issues of the day. In legislatures, whoever controls procedure usually controls results. In Congress, leaders — and sometimes followers — in both parties for years have manipulated the process to avoid tough decisions or skew results. Giving members of the House and the Senate a fair shot at addressing the nation’s challenges would deal Congress back into the policy-making arena.

Second, Congress has developed several bad habits that it needs to fix. These include huge bills that become vehicles for special-interest provisions and leadership wish-lists; bypassing the committee process; concentrating power in the leaders; curbing the participation of most members; and limiting debates and amendments.

The most pernicious of these is the practice of legislating by omnibus bills. These consist of hundreds of provisions, usually drafted in the dead of night by leadership staff — not members of Congress — and brought to the floor with scant time for anyone to read them, limited time for debate, and few amendments allowed. A lot of members have never known anything different.

There’s another way, and it brings me to my third point. We have over 200 years of experience on Capitol Hill that have taught us how to run a legislature so that the voice of the people can be better heard, multiple viewpoints get considered, and ordinary legislators get a fair shot at influencing the results. It’s called the “regular order,” and it gives members a fair crack at crafting policy for the nation.

The American people want Congress to work. They don’t expect a solution to everything, and they certainly don’t expect miracles. But they do expect a Congress that tries to make progress and that’s capable of developing creative approaches to the major problems of the day. The frustration for me is that we know how to do things better with a time-tested process, but members of Congress simply ignore it.

Lee Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. He writes regularly about Congress and what individuals can do to make our representative democracy work better. His columns are part of the educational mission of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, where he is director. Visit www.centeroncongress.org or go to Facebook to express your views about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” them on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University.”

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Dysfunction exacts a cost


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By Lee H. Hamilton

Earlier this month, The Economist, the renowned British weekly, ran an editorial advocating an end to the U.S. dollar’s supremacy as the world’s chief currency. The magazine offered several economic motives and one supremely political one. “For how long,” its editors wrote, “will countries be ready to tie their financial systems to America’s fractious and dysfunctional politics?”

I want to be blunt here. Congress’s inaction on a host of important issues — its inability to deal with our problems — is doing real damage to our country. It undermines our ability to lead in the world and causes undue economic and social hardship at home. We are getting a reputation as a nation that cannot deal with many of its problems.

If we’re to get out of this mess, the starting point is to recognize the political reality of divided government. The parties have a right to their own hopes and aspirations, but they also need to take seriously the responsibility to govern. They need to find a way past the unhappiness and anger that are evident in the country at large.

Given the seriousness of our problems and the lack of progress on the policy agenda Congress is supposed to handle, there’s really only one way forward: through negotiation and compromise. This has never been easy—learning to compromise on the issues without compromising one’s own principles—but it’s especially challenging now, when I worry that striking a deal has become a lost art.

Still, certain steps seem obvious. The congressional leadership must let the Congress work its will. Members should be allowed to vote straightforwardly on the major policy issues of the day, without leadership manipulating the process to control the result. The House should reject the Hastert Rule, under which a majority of the majority caucus is required to bring a bill to the floor. And both houses need to stop the outrageous use of huge omnibus bills adopted by short-cutting time-tested regular order procedures.

If Congress does not learn to compromise and negotiate, the country is headed for even deeper trouble than we’re currently in. U.S. world leadership will slip, our ability to deal with economic and social issues at home will deteriorate, and the electorate will become even more embittered. Our future is in Congress’s hands. It would be nice if they recognized it.

Lee Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. He writes regularly about Congress and what individuals can do to make our representative democracy work better. His columns are part of the educational mission of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, where he is director. Visit www.centeroncongress.org or go to Facebook to express your views about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” them on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University.”

 

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We face real challenges to representative democracy

By Lee H. Hamilton

People who care about the United States’ place in the world often fret about challenges to representative democracy from other countries. I’d contend that the more formidable challenge comes not from abroad, but from within.

For starters, it’s hard to make American representative democracy work. Our country is large, growing, and diverse, and we rely on a bewildering array of branches and units of government to run it. The system rests on the consent of a public that often wants mutually contradictory things — to shrink the deficit, for instance, but without cuts in defense spending or entitlements and no additional taxes.

Two of our basic governing institutions, Congress and the presidency, are not at the top of their game. Congress has adopted some unfortunate political and procedural habits: it governs by crisis, fails repeatedly to follow time-tested procedures that ensure accountability and fairness, panders to wealthy contributors, and too often erupts in excessive partisanship. Meanwhile, the President presides over a bloated executive branch that has too many decision makers and bases to touch, lacks accountability, and desperately needs better, more effective management.

The decades-long march toward increased presidential power at the expense of the legislative branch severely undercuts our constitutional system and raises the question of how far down this road can we go and still have representative democracy.

We face other challenges as well. Too much money is threatening the core values of representative democracy. And too many Americans have become passive and disengaged from politics and policy; representative democracy is not a spectator sport.

Yet, our political system forms the core of American strength. It enshrines fundamental power in a body elected by the broad mass of the people, and is based solidly on the participation and consent of the governed. Allowed to work properly, it is the system most likely to produce policy that reflects a consensus among the governed. Above all, it has the capacity to correct itself and move on.

In other words, we don’t need to reinvent our system, but rather use its abundant strengths to find our way through our problems and emerge stronger on the other side.

It is not written in the stars that representative government will always prosper and prevail. It needs the active involvement of all of us, from ordinary voters to the president. Each of us must do our part.

Lee Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. He writes regularly about Congress and what individuals can do to make our representative democracy work better. His columns are part of the educational mission of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, where he is director. Visit www.centeroncongress.org or go to Facebook to express your views about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” us on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University.”

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What do we mean by “Representative Government”? 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

With a presidential election year fast approaching, we’re in for a lot of public talk about the state of American democracy. Much of that discussion will be insightful and thought-provoking, but there’s a good chance you’ll also find a lot of it vague and hard to pin down.

There’s a reason for this. Even our political leaders, the people who are most familiar with the system’s workings, have a hard time describing it.

In fact, they even have a hard time labeling it. Ours is not actually a pure democracy: it’s more accurate to say that we live in a “representative democracy” – that is, the people don’t themselves make decisions, but delegate that authority to their elected representatives. In this sense, we really live in a republic, a word you don’t often hear from the podium.

Perhaps the best way to start thinking about what American representative democracy really means is to recall the Pledge of Allegiance, which is an oath to the Republic that our flag symbolizes, and in particular to an ideal: that our nation will strive for liberty and justice for all. Plenty of well-meaning people, in the heat of the political moment, seize on one or the other of those twin poles to support their agenda — they insist upon liberty or they demand justice. The Pledge, however, makes it clear that these core principles are inseparable.

Still, they are ideals. They’re not sufficient to define a representative democracy.

Indeed, no single feature does. One of our core tenets holds that the people are sovereign — that we give our consent to be governed through regular participation in the elections that decide who will represent us. Yet elections in and of themselves don’t define our republic, either; there are plenty of countries around the world whose elections are used to distort democracy.

So the rule of law is also key, and along with it the notion that everyone ought to be subject to equal justice under the law. The separation of powers among the different branches of government creates a balance designed to protect the people from overweening power. The rights guaranteed by our Constitution ensure that the rights of minorities of all kinds are safe.

The big challenge in all this is to set up the structures and practices that protect and defend these beliefs. The courts, legislative bodies and executive branches at the federal, state and local level are an example of this, along with a system of checks and balances that promotes accountability and transparency. So are the freedoms we often take for granted: under our Constitution, we do not put to a vote whether to continue protecting freedom of religion or the right to express unpopular sentiments or publish news that challenges those in power.

While representative democracy rests on a core set of principles, it remains a constantly evolving concept. At the beginning, ours was limited: our Founders began with an inspiring set of beliefs about how a nation ought to govern itself, but they also ignored women and chose to set aside the question of slavery. This was a democracy of white males of a certain age who owned property. Representative democracy by its nature is always a work in progress; we never really get the balance between liberty and justice exactly right.

This is worth remembering at the moment, when the problems we confront seem so overwhelming and our institutions are under so much strain. The problems they have to resolve—the outsized role of money in politics, excessive partisanship, the sheer complexity of the policy challenges we face—are daunting, but that doesn’t mean representative government itself should be called into question.

In fact, it is our great strength. It protects against arbitrary authority, strives for justice, hears our varied and conflicting opinions before it acts, and moderates tensions among competing interests. It works in a measured fashion that tends—over time—to encourage policymakers to find consensus. It is the form of government that, when allowed to work properly, is most likely to lead to wise policy, firmly rooted in the consent of the ordinary people on whose shoulders it rests.

Lee Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. He writes regularly about Congress and what individuals can do to make our representative democracy work better. His columns are part of the educational mission of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, where he is director. www.centeroncongress.org

 

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On Voting … and not 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

The campaigning for next year’s elections is starting to draw more attention, and with it comes a focus on voters and their mood. Which is all well and good, but it leaves out of the equation one large bloc of citizens: people who are eligible to vote, but don’t.

They give a multitude of reasons: they’re too busy, or voting takes too much time, or they’re turned off by politics and the money game. Sometimes they’re ill or disabled. Sometimes they ran into ID requirements that stymied them.

Although there are plenty of policy-makers whose chief concern is to protect the integrity of the ballot and reduce fraud, others are deeply worried about falling rates of voter participation. They’re concerned because voting doesn’t just put office-holders in place and push policy in one direction or another. It also affirms the electoral system. The vigor of our system depends on the vote of each citizen.

So what do we do about it?

Generally speaking, Democrats have emphasized making ballot access easier; Republicans have focused on ballot integrity. Both need to be addressed. The vigor of our system depends on the vote of each citizen. We have to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.

We also need to modernize the system. Ours is fragile and uneven. We’ve already had one presidential election decided by courts on a question of failed infrastructure. More embarrassing cases will certainly occur.

And the days are long past when it was okay to place election administration in the hands of partisan state or local politicians. It’s time for election management across the country to be in non-partisan hands.

The aim of reforming the system is to make voting convenient, efficient, and pleasant, to make sure the mechanics work as they ought, and to ensure that disputes are handled fairly. State governments, not localities, should be responsible for the accuracy and quality of voter lists.

Finally, there’s the question of voter ID. It’s legitimate to ensure that a person presenting himself or herself at the voting site is the same one named on the voting list. But requiring an ID needs to be accompanied by aggressive efforts to find voters and provide free access to the voting booth. Instead, a lot of states that have instituted ID requirements have dismissed the idea that this imposes a responsibility to reach out to voters and make IDs available to those who can’t afford it. They’re subverting representative democracy.

Lee Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. He writes regularly about Congress and what individuals can do to make our representative democracy work better. His columns are part of the educational mission of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, where he is director. www.centeroncongress.org

 

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