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Archive | Lee Hamilton Column

Where the Presidency is headed 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webV-pullquoteBy Lee H. Hamilton

Before the ins and outs of the 2016 presidential contest become a preoccupation for many of us, it seems a good time to step back and look at the office of the presidency for which so many candidates are vying. The presidency inherited by whoever wins next November will be substantially changed from the position his or her predecessors occupied a few decades ago.

The President is now the chief—and sometimes the sole—actor in American government. He far outweighs the other so-called “co-equal” branches. The media covers the White House extensively, and the other branches much less so. People don’t expect Congress or the Supreme Court to solve the country’s problems. Instead, they look to the President for initiatives, for remedies, and increasingly—and sadly—to serve as a de facto pastor to the nation when we confront a tragedy.

The branch that came first in our founders’ minds, Congress, is now of secondary importance. This has been a long, slow development, the result not so much of court cases, legislation, or even deliberate planning, but of countless decisions by congressional leaders that have handed power to the President so as to avoid tough decisions on Capitol Hill. There may be limitations imposed by the courts or public opinion, but the system of checks and balances our system was supposed to operate under has been severely weakened.

Not even the press can hold the President to account any more, except under extraordinary circumstances. For one thing, it’s very hard to grill the President these days. The tradition of regular presidential news conferences has all but disappeared—and when the press corps does get a chance to ask questions, the White House carefully manages the event.

This makes it very hard to find a forum or a place where people outside the White House bubble can ask the President probing questions and press for thorough explanations of a policy or problem. I’ve long favored a regular question-and-answer period in Congress that would be publicly televised—a chance for the President’s supporters and opponents to probe his or her thinking. At a minimum, we should get regular and extensive press conferences. Instead, the only media-related event that happens regularly is the morning meeting among White House staff to figure out how to get the President on the evening news in the most favorable light. It’s a form of manipulation that greatly reduces accountability.

This is a shame not just for the obvious reasons, but also because the federal government cries out for more accountability these days. Whoever is President next, he or she would do well to pay more attention to effective management of the vast executive establishment than has been the practice until now. Otherwise, the breakdowns in the operation of government to which we’ve grown accustomed will continue.

That’s because government today is strained at every level: The population is getting older, health care costs are high, our fiscal problems never end, challenges such as threats to our security, environmental degradation, and poverty abound. Highly complex problems pile up with great rapidity, and government needs highly skilled people to deal with them.

Every President comes into office insisting he’ll spend a lot of time on making the government work better, but invariably he is distracted by the rush of events. The last serious effort to do so was Al Gore’s, when he was Bill Clinton’s vice president. Some progress might get made, but for the most part presidents don’t deal with the issue in a sustained, comprehensive, coherent way.

This is not entirely the President’s fault. The Congressional Research Service estimates that 1,200 to 1,400 positions are subject to confirmation by the Senate, and Presidents often have a hard time getting the people they want into position. That needs to change, perhaps by requiring an up-or-down vote on a nominee within 90 days.

To sum it up, while the President’s accumulation of power is a serious problem in the big picture, it nonetheless is a fact. We ought to make it easier for him to get the people he needs in a position to make government work more effectively.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and 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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They’re off and running

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

The presidential election is 16 months away, but already we’re smack in the middle of the usual media scrum of campaign coverage, prognostication, and strategizing by many of us who have nothing much to do with the real campaigns. I’ve been following the rhetoric of both parties, and there are a few points that stand out enough to tell us something about what we have to look forward to.

To begin, the country is not in a sunny mood. There is a sense that America is adrift, that we don’t quite know how to deal with the forces of globalization, technological change, economic uncertainty, or terrorism. Americans are looking for a leader who can restore confidence.

The economy in particular weighs on ordinary Americans’ minds. There’s widespread agreement that the growing economy has done very little to help people of ordinary income—not just in recent years, but really for the past generation.

Still, the improving economy may be responsible for one interesting aspect of the campaign: Republicans thus far have made national security a centerpiece issue, though this could change with world events. They are also focusing on the budget deficit, cutting taxes, and, as always, pulling back on the reach of government. They want to eliminate Obamacare as well as cut Medicaid, move Medicare to a voucher system, repeal the estate tax, cut domestic programs, roll back financial reform and efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminate further consumer protections.

For the Democrats, meanwhile, addressing income inequality, maintaining social security and other entitlements, improving the country’s decaying infrastructure, job creation, college costs, immigration and energy reform, and climate change all loom large. They want to preserve Obamacare, move forward on climate change, retain taxes on high-income earners, and preserve the financial reforms of the last decade.

The stark differences in priorities between Republicans and Democrats will probably be exacerbated by the primaries. Despite agreement on the general sense of unease among the population at large, just reciting the parties’ rhetorical positions suggests there will be a huge gulf between the parties, with no agreement on how to bridge it. The campaign will be characterized by heavy emphasis on the impact of money on the process, and by record-breaking spending by the candidates.

With no incumbent president, many candidates, no clear favorite, and major differences in outlook on which issues to address and how to address them, this will be in the grand American political tradition a lively, contentious, long, expensive, maybe even pivotal election. Who gets to answer the biggest questions we face—the appropriate U.S. role in the world, what the reach and purpose of government should be, which path will best secure Americans’ prosperity and world peace—is up for grabs. We’ve got an interesting election ahead as a nation. I’m looking forward to it. I hope you are, too.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and 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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We need both insiders and outsiders in Congress 

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

Members of Congress get categorized in all sorts of ways. They’re liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat; interested in domestic affairs or specialists in foreign policy.

There’s one important category, though, that I never hear discussed: whether a member wants to be an inside player or an outside player. Yet where members fall on the continuum helps to shape the institution of Congress.

Insiders focus on making the institution work. They give fewer speeches on the floor, issue fewer press releases, and spend less time considering how to play the public relations game or how to raise money. Instead, they put in long, tedious hours on developing legislation, attending hearings, listening to experts, exploring policy options, and working on building consensus. They’re the ones who do the necessary work of legislating.

Outsiders pass through the institution of Congress, but many of them are using Congress — and especially the House of Representatives — as a stepping-stone to another office: the Senate, a governorship, the presidency.

On Capitol Hill, these people behave very differently from insiders. They raise money aggressively, put a lot of effort into developing a public persona, and are consumed with public relations. They travel a lot. They churn out press releases and speak on the floor on every topic they can find something to deliver an opinion about. They miss votes more frequently than insiders, and often do not attend committee hearings. They’re often impatient with House and Senate traditions, and are impatient with the democratic process.

I want to be clear that I’m not judging which kind of member is more valuable. I may prefer to spend my time with insiders, but both are needed to make the system work. You have to have members reaching out to the broader public, talking about the big issues and engaging Americans in the issues of the day. And you need people on the inside who are dedicated to resolving those issues by attending to the legislation that will make this possible.

The truth is, Congress wouldn’t work if everyone were an outside player. The process is tedious, and outsiders have little patience for it. Yet if everyone were an insider, the country would be deprived of the dialogue, debate, and sheer spectacle that give Americans a sense of stake and participation in the policy-making process.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and 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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Why run for office? 

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

I spend a fair amount of time talking to students and other young people about Congress and politics in general, and I’ve noticed something. It used to be that I’d regularly get asked how one runs for office. Nowadays, I rarely do.

A lot of young people are repelled by politics; they’ve lost faith in the system just as many other Americans have. But look. If you don’t have people who are willing to run for office, you don’t have a representative democracy. As the leading edge of the Millennial generation reaches the age where running for office is a realistic possibility, I hope they’ll consider a few things.

First, it’s hard to find a more challenging job. The number, complexity, and diversity of the problems we face are astounding. As a politician, your work is never done; your to-do list is always full. It’s intellectually as challenging an occupation as anything I can imagine.

Second, I don’t know of another profession that puts you in touch with more people of more different types, ages, and views. You meet—and, if you’re serious, really engage with—liberals and conservatives, voters rich and poor, religious believers and secular humanists alike. This is one of the great attractions of the job: the splendid array of individuals and convictions that you encounter in politics.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the work can be immensely satisfying. Whatever level you’re running at, whether it’s for the school board or for President, you’re doing it to try to make things work.

My first year in Congress, in 1965, I voted for Medicare. I’d had no role in drafting it. I played no substantive part in its passage. Yet, I still remember that vote, and I still derive deep satisfaction from it. Because I know that I voted for legislation that has helped millions of people, and will continue to do so into the future. That’s the thing about holding public office: you have a chance to contribute to the direction and success of a free society. In the scheme of things, this chance isn’t given to all that many people.

There is no America without democracy, no democracy without politics, and no politics without elected politicians. There are a lot of exciting, challenging and satisfying professions out there, but here’s what I tell young people: I consider politics chief among them.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and 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 says, “War Powers? What War Powers?” 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

A few weeks ago, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia made a small splash in the press when he took Congress to task for failing to authorize our nation’s ongoing war against Islamic militants. “The silence of Congress in the midst of this war is cowardly and shameful,” he said. “[T]his Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama’s use of executive power… allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined and unchecked.”

It has been three months since President Obama sent his proposal for an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” focused on ISIS to Capitol Hill. It has gone nowhere.

This is mind-boggling. On the most important question government faces—military intervention overseas—Congress seems unable to stir itself to hammer out an agreement with the President. You can blame the President for this or you can blame Congress—each side comes in for its fair share—but inaction only expands the power of the President, leaving him to make hugely consequential decisions by himself. It’s a shocking dereliction of duty on Capitol Hill.

This is going to be a long and difficult conflict. It raises tough questions about the scope of the President’s powers, the duration of those powers, the definition and identity of the enemy, the extent of the field of battle, and America’s fundamental role in the world. The decision to apply American lives and resources to such a war is momentous, and, as a country, we need to know how far we’re willing to commit ourselves.

If we are going to send U.S. forces into dangerous places, they need to go in with the public backing that comes from a formal authorization hammered out in Congress. Both the President and Congress are dragging their feet on this, but that only helps the President, not the country. It leaves him—and most likely his successor—with dangerously broad authority to use military force without restriction, in perpetuity. This is not how a democracy like ours should operate.

The American people are beginning to understand all this. They overwhelmingly believe that Congress needs to weigh in on the government’s war-making powers. Yet, that seems to mean nothing to Washington. “Cowardly and shameful,” Sen. Kaine said. That pretty much sums it up.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and 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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The Way Forward for Congress 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

There have been encouraging signs on Capitol Hill of late that Congress’s long slide into irrelevance may be slowing.

Agreements on Medicare reimbursements and on Iran, No Child Left Behind, Pacific trade and other issues in various committees led last month to a chorus of relieved approval both in Washington and in the press. Just as important, the amendment process—at least in the Senate—is once again functioning as it’s supposed to.

But let’s not go overboard. Major challenges lie immediately ahead, chief among them how Congress handles the budget. If Congress finds that it likes feeling productive, then I’ve got some suggestions for turning these first, tentative steps into full-blown progress.

First, it needs to remember that our founders placed Congress first in the constitutional firmament. It has been far too timid. As has been noted, “Congress today is a reactive body, taking its cues from the President: sometimes in deference to him, sometimes in opposition to him, occasionally in agreement with him—but always in reference to him.” That’s not the definition of a co-equal branch of government.

Second, Congress needs to return to good process. This is not a panacea, but it enhances the prospect of getting things right. Returning in both houses to the so-called “regular order” of committee hearings and amendments would do wonders for restoring transparency, encouraging fact-finding, hearing all sides, weighing options, and finding agreement.

Third, members need to understand that their conduct has a direct impact on Americans’ trust in Congress. Too many have a constricted view of what it means to serve. They understand their responsibility to represent their constituents, but apparently feel little or no responsibility to get legislation enacted into law or to make the country work. This approach fails the ultimate test of the legislative process, which is to find remedies to the nation’s challenges.

Finally, Congress should heed the lesson of these past few months and re-energize its commitment to negotiation and compromise. There’s room in politics for elected leaders who do not back down on their principles, but these politicians can’t be allowed to dominate the process. If they do, the legislative process deadlocks and representative government becomes impossible. Skillful legislators know how to honor their firmly held principles while still finding common ground.

The progress we’ve seen of late on Capitol Hill is proof that these legislators exist. May their ranks increase.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and 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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Money and Politics: We Need Change Now!

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

I’ve seen a lot over my decades in politics, and not much alarms me. But I have to be blunt: Money is poisoning our political system.

The people who matter most to a representative democracy—the ordinary voters in whose interests elected politicians are supposed to act—feel they’ve become an afterthought in the political process. The tidal wave of money washing over our elections, with no end in sight, is causing Americans to lose faith in the system.

Oddly, many politicians see no problem. They don’t believe that they’re selling their votes, or even that money influences their behavior.

While it is a rare member of Congress who would change his or her vote because of money, there is ample evidence that when donors contribute heavily, they have a disproportionate influence over the legislator; that’s not “corruption,” but it means that the opinions of average citizens are diminished when it comes to policy-making.

Thanks to a series of Supreme Court decisions over the last half-decade, we’ve seen a surge in campaign spending that is beyond the ability of journalists and regulators to track. This money purchases attack ads that saturate the airwaves with scant clue as to who is funding them. And, it pushes our politics toward the extremes, emphasizing ideological purity, unremitting partisanship, and a political culture that exalts confrontation over consensus building. In other words, it cripples representative democracy.

So what can we do? The first priority is to find ways of boosting prompt financial disclosure—to trace the source of campaign spending on behalf of candidates and incumbents before an election so that voters know who is supporting whom, and can match candidates’ positions on issues with the interests of their financial backers. Disclosure done after elections is meaningless.

The second major reform is to make public funds available for financing campaigns, thus amplifying the contributions of ordinary Americans, freeing candidates to spend more time on substance rather than fundraising, and letting them engage more fully with voters rather than donors.

The odds of action are not encouraging. Yet, I’m heartened by something Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters in New Hampshire the other day. “You’re going to have money dumped in this election cycle that’s going to turn off the American people,” he said. “There’s going to be a need and a movement to try to control the money in politics.” Let’s hope he’s right.

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Congress and the President need to consult and not just on Iran 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

Congress has developed a fondness for open letters when it comes to Iran. First came the warning shot signed by 47 Republican senators that touched off a storm of criticism. Not to be outdone, the House checked in with its own bipartisan and more diplomatically stated letter to the President, warning that its members must be satisfied with any agreement before they’ll vote to reduce sanctions.

What lies behind these moves? I think Congress feels left out of foreign policy-making.

I have considerable sympathy for this impulse. Over the decades, too much power has drifted to the President when it comes to foreign affairs. The Congress has been deferential, even timid, in allowing this to happen. And the President has not done a sufficient job of consulting with Congress.

Yet much as I want to see Congress speak up on foreign policy, how it does so matters. The Senate’s letter to Iran was ill-considered and unhelpful. Its purpose was to defeat the nuclear negotiations, and it undercut the President while he was trying to negotiate a deal with another world leader.

The letter did focus appropriately on presidential use of executive orders to conduct foreign policy, but it wrongly suggested that an executive order on Iran is likely to be reversed by a future president. Presidential deals with other countries are rarely overturned by their successors.

Yet the fact that a president can act on his own does not mean that he should do so. The reliance on executive orders means we have no clear mechanism, or even requirement, for the President to consult and work with Congress on foreign policy. And that’s crucial. The President and the Congress need to consult regularly and in depth before problems come to a head. Sustained and respectful consultation would go a long way toward avoiding the acrimonious contention over foreign policy that we’ve seen of late.

Congress’s bid to reopen this question is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But if the President and the Congress want to avoid these flare-ups and strengthen the nation’s foreign policy, they should exercise in-depth, sustained consultation.

Lee Hamilton is Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; and Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana’s 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999. As a public service, Hamilton writes regularly about Congress and what individuals can do to make our representative democracy work better.

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Learning to Be a Citizen 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

The question usually comes toward the end of a public meeting. Some knotty problem is being discussed, and someone in the audience will raise his or her hand and ask, “Okay, so what can I do about it?”

I love that question. Not because I’ve ever answered it to my satisfaction, but because it bespeaks such a constructive outlook.

The usual advice that politicians give is to vote, work for a candidate, let your elected officials know what you think, and participate in community life. This is good counsel—but only as far as it goes. With a little more time now to answer the question, I’d add a few other points.

First, it’s important that citizens appreciate how hard it is to solve problems in a representative democracy. Every issue—even a stop sign at a corner—is more complex than it appears. Understanding and appreciating the complexities is the only way to see how and where you can make progress.

It’s also vital to learn that solving problems means working with all kinds of people. It requires bringing different points of view together, developing connections to key players in your community, talking face-to-face with others who may not agree with you, and communicating your ideas effectively, including to the media. It also means learning that differences can exist without personal animosity, and recognizing the common ground on which you can build agreement.

There is a key lesson that comes from trying to solve a particular problem: it tends to make you less ideological and more pragmatic. It forces you to examine the options in front of you and to figure out what resources are at hand to help you pursue them.

Politics is not a game for everyone, but there are other ways to be involved in community life. Regardless of the avenue they choose, it’s the people who step forward who refresh this country and make it stronger.

Our Constitution’s preamble begins, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union….” At heart, that’s what getting involved means: shouldering the challenges, shared responsibilities, and opportunities that democracy thrusts upon us as we pursue a more perfect union. That’s what I want to say to the people who ask, “What can I do about it?” The journey is hard and complicated, but it’s the most satisfying work I can imagine.

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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Governing by crisis isn’t governing at all 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton, Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University

After Congress came a hair’s breadth from shutting down the Department of Homeland Security a few weeks ago, members of the leadership tried to reassure the American people. “We’re certainly not going to shut down the government or default on the national debt,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Congress, he said, would not lurch from crisis to crisis.

I wish I could be so confident. Because if you look at the year ahead, the congressional calendar is littered with opportunities to do just that, with deadlines for the Highway Trust Fund, Export-Import Bank, debt ceiling, and the Treasury’s borrowing power all approaching. My bet is not on smooth sailing.

This is a huge problem. Great democracies do not veer from one doomsday moment to the next, nor do they fund government on a week-to-week basis. Yet that is precisely the habit Congress has developed. It’s embarrassing.

During the weeks Congress held Homeland Security hostage, the department had to get ready for roughly 30,000 employees to be furloughed, ask crucial employees to be willing to work without pay—we’re talking the border patrol, Coast Guard, screeners at airports, cargo inspectors…the people on the front lines—and prepare to shut down ongoing research and planning on making the country safer. Terrorism overseas was consuming the attention of our national security agencies, but the department charged with protecting the nation at home had to be consumed with shuttering its operations.

We need a Congress that can address its problems before a crisis comes up. What will it take? Members need to work at legislating every day, not just the three days in the middle of the week. Congressional leaders need to move legislation through in an orderly fashion. The so-called “Hastert Rule”—that the Speaker of the House will not allow a vote on a bill unless he has a majority of his own party behind it—needs to be jettisoned for good, not just in extreme circumstances. And perhaps most important, the tactic of tying two unrelated issues together in order to force an opponent’s hand needs to be rejected.

The parade of make-or-break issues that Congress faces this year presents myriad opportunities for legislative mischief. If all we see before us is one government-shutdown threat after another, the remaining faith Americans hold in our chief lawmaking body could disappear altogether. And deservedly so.

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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