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It’s getting harder to govern, and it’s not just politicians’ fault

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

We may not know who our next President is going to be, but here’s one thing that’s almost certain: he or she will take office with roughly half of the electorate unhappy and mistrustful. The notion that the President speaks for a broad coalition of Americans who are willing to set aside their differences on behalf of a compelling new vision for the country? It’s vanished.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering where it went, and though I still haven’t found an answer, I do know this: it’s not only Washington’s—or even the political class’s—fault.

Let’s start with a lament I hear frequently about this year’s crop of presidential candidates: “Is this the best we can do?” I used to believe that the popular argument that the best among us do not seek political office was wrong—that there were plenty of standout Americans who went into politics. And there are. But there are also a lot of talented people—the kind who could lead us beyond our tired political discourse—who take a look at politics and turn the other way these days.

I’ve known a lot of very good people in politics, who were motivated by a true interest in improving the country and saw politics as a competition of ideas, not a mean-spirited clash of ideologies. I see less of this today. Many politicians seem genuinely not to like one another. They see a victory by the other party as a threat to the well-being of the nation.

This is a departure from the past, and it’s not a healthy one. There was a time when the parties and other organizations that brought disparate voters together—charitable institutions, unions—helped build a unity of effort in the government. But groups like that are weaker now.

Which is a shame in a year like this, when voters are angry and distrustful and worried by economic insecurity. They don’t have much appetite for the substance and complexity of policy, seem to relish the clashes that this year’s campaigning has produced, and are uninterested in talk of finding common ground.

It’s a campaign year, of course, so a certain amount of this is to be expected. But if the voters’ surly mood and mistrust carry over after November, it’s going to be very hard for the next President—and politicians in general—to govern effectively.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU 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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Beyond transparency, we need accountability

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

Over more than three decades in Congress, I had the chance to question a lot of federal officials. Most of the time I wasn’t after anything dramatic; I just wanted to understand who was responsible for certain decisions. How often did I get a straight answer? Almost never.

It was easily one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to ensure robust oversight of the government. Our representatives’ job, after all, is to help make government work better. And you can’t do that if you don’t know whom to hold accountable for important decisions.

Accountability is essential to good governance. I’m not just talking about transparency—that is, citizens’ ability to know what’s being done in our name. That’s important, but equally important is holding accountable those who made the decision to do it: ensuring that they are accountable to policy-makers, adhere to their obligations, follow the law, and that their actions are appropriate and responsive to the needs of the country.

This is elusive. Accountability requires that officials step up and take responsibility for their decisions, and not try to shift that responsibility to others or to some ill-defined group. It requires unambiguous performance standards, clear codes of ethics, timely reporting, and acceptance of responsibility, especially with regard to budget or spending decisions.

So how do we get there?

Without clarity on who’s in charge of what and who’s responsible for which decisions, it becomes too easy for officials to remain unanswerable for their actions. Yet clear lines of authority mean nothing unless the deciding officials are identified and measured against what actually takes place. Officials need to give a full account of what they do and the decisions they make.

As a nation, we face a growing issue on this front when it comes to federal contractors—that is, the private workforce doing jobs for federal agencies. There are very few mechanisms for holding contractors responsible for their errors, abuses and missteps.

Accountability also requires a robust media to tell us what’s going on in the entire system: within the bureaucracy, in the behavior of contractors, and among legislators who ought to be overseeing both but often don’t.

Accountability is key to good government. All I wanted to know in those congressional hearings was who made the decision about the public’s business. Is that too much to ask?

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU 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,” and share our postings with your friends.

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There’s too much secrecy in government

By Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

We have a secrecy problem. This may seem odd to say during an era in which the most intimate details of individuals’ lives are on display. Yet government is moving behind closed doors, and this is definitely the wrong direction.

In fact, I’m dismayed by how often public officials fight not to do the public’s business in public. And I’m not just talking about the federal government.

City and town councils regularly go into executive session to discuss “personnel issues” that might or might not truly need to be carried on outside public view. And let’s not even talk about what can go on behind closed doors when it comes to contracting.

At the state level, lawmakers exempt themselves from public records laws, underfund public watchdogs, and exempt lobbying expenditures from sunshine laws. “While every state in the nation has open records and meetings laws, they’re typically shot through with holes and exemptions,” the Center for Public Integrity reported last year. “In most states, at least one entire branch of government or agency claims exemptions from the laws.”

In case you’re wondering whether this has an impact on real people’s lives, it’s worth remembering that thousands of emails released in the wake of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis revealed “what appears to be an active effort by state employees to avoid disclosure of public records under [freedom of information laws],” according to Governing magazine.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of efforts to keep the public from learning all sorts of details about how the federal government conducts business.

Campaign contributors increasingly manage to avoid disclosure of their political activities. Government contractors are not subject to most of the transparency rules that affect federal agencies—even as more and more business is being done through contractors.

The 72 federal inspectors general who are appointed to ensure the efficiency and accountability of the agencies they oversee face constant efforts to limit their access to records. Routine information is classified and kept secret; members of Congress joke that what they’ve just read in a top-secret document was taken from the front page of the New York Times. Yet they themselves increasingly rely on omnibus spending bills — which are put together behind closed doors by a handful of leaders and congressional staff with no public scrutiny.

Most notably, of course, secrecy extends to national security issues. There are some government secrets that are necessary to protect, and a balance has to be struck between protecting national security and openness. But the presumption should be in favor of openness. Those who favor secrecy should make their case in public and not rely on the old adage, “Trust me.”

Take the question of the U.S. drone program. The overall program may be necessary, and technical means, operational details, intelligence methods are all rightfully classified. But that should not be an excuse for hiding information from the American people about what we’re doing with drones. Do we want our resources spent on targeted killing programs? Who determines who gets killed? What’s the evidence on which we base who gets killed? How many innocent people have been killed? The American people have a right to know what’s going on. But we’re being kept in the dark.

Openness is not a panacea, but it makes good government more likely. Representative democracy depends on our ability to know what’s being done in our name. We cannot exercise the discriminating judgment required of citizens about politics, policies and politicians if we do not know what they’re doing. Nor is it possible to maintain the checks and balances required under our Constitution without openness and transparency. We have to shine a bright light on the actions of public officials so that it’s more likely they’ll act with integrity. Justice Louis Brandeis gave perhaps the most famous formulation of this requirement in his 1913 statement, “[S]unlight is said to be the best disinfectant.”

But Judge Damon Keith of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals put an exclamation point on the idea in a 2002 ruling that the government could not carry out secret deportation hearings without proving the need for secrecy. “Democracies,” he wrote, “die behind closed doors.”

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU 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 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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Before you reject the system, understand it

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

If there’s a theme that sets this political season apart, it’s the voters’ utter disdain for most of the people who practice politics. They’re fed up with politicians, they’ve lost faith and confidence in the political elite, and they don’t believe that the realm where politicians ply their craft—government—works.

There are many legitimate reasons for these people to be turned off by the way politics has been practiced and to be discouraged by the way the political system appears to work. But I’d argue that if you’re hell-bent on shaking up the system, you also need to understand it—and understand that certain features are likely to persist no matter how hard you try to change them.

The first is that it is very hard to make our representative democracy work. We make progress incrementally, over years if not generations. So you have to approach politics with great patience. Our system discourages the rush to judgment; it puts a premium on including as many voices as possible, which takes time in a complicated country.

Many people are also turned off by what lies at the center of our system: deal-making. This involves a clash of ideas in the public arena, compromise, and negotiation, which make many Americans uneasy. Yet, it’s how we resolve our differences, and has been since the first day of the United States’ existence.

So politicians who insist on purity impede solutions. There ought to be a healthy tension between idealism and realism, but we have to find a pragmatic way to combine them. This makes it challenging to come to an agreement on complicated issues, but it’s necessary to keep the country from coming apart.

We cannot look to government to solve all our problems. Indeed, we live in an era in which government faces more and more problems it cannot effectively deal with. Increasingly, citizens have to step forward and fill the void that government leaves. We may well be moving into the century of the citizen. Our communities and lives are better because of citizen action. Indeed, unless citizens boost their involvement and contributions, many of our problems will not be solved.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU 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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To Find Hope, Look Around You 

 

By Lee Hamilton

By Lee Hamilton

These are very unhappy times in Washington. Relations between the executive and legislative branches are not just sour, but corrosive. Partisan paralysis and game-playing on Capitol Hill have become a hallmark of these times, as has the evident distaste our nation’s leaders feel for one another.

It would be understandable to give in to despair, and a lot of Americans have done so. I have not, and for a simple reason: in our system there is always hope. Why? Because our representative democracy rests finally not on what politicians in Washington or in our state capitals do, but on what our citizens do.

The bedrock assumption of representative government is that Americans will make discriminating judgments about politicians and policies, and shoulder their responsibility as citizens to improve their corner of the world. The remarkable thing is, they often do.

More than anything else, what you see when ordinary Americans decide to get involved in a public issue is their common sense and good judgment, their fundamental decency, and their remarkable sense of fairness. They recognize there are differences of opinion and that they have to be sorted through. They make decisions by and large based on hope, not fear or despair.

The sense that comes through when you watch Americans at work on public issues is their overwhelming desire to improve their community. Often this is reflected in concrete projects—a new bridge, a better school, a badly needed sewer system. But you can also see it in many people’s cry for candidates who will set narrow interests and excessive partisanship aside, and work to improve the quality of life for all Americans.

We often think of representative government as a process in which the elected official educates constituents, but the reverse is usually even more the case. Americans understand the need for deal-making, compromise, and negotiation—and that to achieve change, they have to work through the system we have, which means educating and pushing political leaders.

This is why I have an underlying confidence in representative government. Americans are pragmatic. They recognize the complexity of the challenges we face, understand there are no simple answers to complex problems, and do not expect to get everything they want. My confidence in the system is built on citizens exercising their right to make this a stronger, fairer country.

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,” and share our postings with your friends.

 

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How to tell if Congress is working again

By Lee H. Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

There have been encouraging signs that the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill wants to make Congress function again. They’ve talked about using conference committees more, allowing a more open process for rank-and-file members, enacting separate appropriation bills rather than using omnibus bills, and letting committees lead on legislation rather than hoarding all power in the leadership offices. Perhaps most important, they’ve acknowledged that Congress has many bad habits, and insist that they want to restore a healthy legislative process.

This has to be heartening to any American concerned about the level of dysfunction to which Congress had sunk. The question is, how can we tell if Congress is actually fixing itself? For as promising as the rhetoric might be, there’s a long way to go before words and reality meet on Capitol Hill. Here’s what you should keep your eye on:

First, differences in emphasis separate the leaders of the two houses, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan is intent on pressing forward with key policy proposals that would anchor a bold Republican legislative agenda. But that’s because the Republican majority in the House is not generally believed to be at risk. Over in the Senate, things are different: control of that body next year is up for grabs, and McConnell seems to be focused on maintaining his party’s majority. For his members, boldness is a risk. This difference could lead to slim production.

So look to see how many and which issues the two leaders really push forward. Will they advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in some version, or let it slide until the elections are past? Will they tackle tax reform? How about authorizing support for the war against ISIS? Ryan has already removed one key matter—immigration reform—from the table. Will other pressing issues also bite the dust?

The second big indicator is whether Congress has the political will to fix itself. Most members say publicly that they don’t want gridlock and are dedicated to making the institution function smoothly. The key measure of whether they really mean it is the attitude they take toward their political adversaries. If what you hear on Capitol Hill is nothing but distrust, then they’re not serious. If they’re willing to negotiate and compromise with one another—as happened at the end of last year, with the passage of an omnibus spending package — then there’s hope.

Third is what you might think of as the rolled-up-sleeves test. How hard are members of Congress willing to work at addressing the key issues facing the country? So far, the evidence is disappointing. The legislative schedule put out by the congressional leadership is, to be blunt, lax. On average, members of Congress will be working about nine days a month. They’ve given themselves four stretches of ten days off at a time. They’ll be off for 52 straight days in July, August and September, and then another 39 days in a row in October and November. Yes, it’s an election year and they want to campaign. But you cannot run a government that is not in session. The best we can hope for is an obvious sense of urgency when members of Congress are in Washington. Look for it. If you don’t see it, little will get done on Capitol Hill.

I should say that not all the responsibility for restoring Congress rests at the federal level. The states, too, have a key role to play. Will they get serious about how they draw congressional districts, so that politicians no longer have the luxury of picking their voters rather than the other way around? Will some states continue to pursue efforts to make voting harder—which, like gerrymandering, has the effect of shoring up the extremes in Congress? Will states make the effort to modernize their voting systems, so that the democratic process has a chance of working with minimal friction?

In the end, good intentions and fine rhetoric don’t accomplish much. I hope you’ll keep an eye on Congress and cheer for its members to act in accord with their own advice. If they do, Congress will take a giant stride toward improved performance.

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,” and share our postings with your friends.

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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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