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Archive | Lee Hamilton Column

Where the election stands 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-colorBy Lee H. Hamilton

The next few weeks in politics are a little like the All-Star break in baseball. With the Republican and Democratic national conventions upon us, it’s a good time to step back and assess this year’s election. Which carries bad news for both parties.

The Republicans face a steep electoral challenge. If Hillary Clinton carries Florida (where polling shows a very close race) plus the District of Columbia and the 19 states that have voted Democratic in each of the last six presidential elections, she wins.

Yet victory for Donald Trump is hardly out of the question. He floated through the Republican primaries by tackling the anger and discontent that course through this year’s electorate. His talk about a broken system and his emphatic, brash style, appeals to a lot of people. His ability to dominate news coverage without spending much on advertising has been extraordinary. And even though he’s passed through a difficult period for his campaign, the polls have grown quite close.

On the other hand, the Republican Party is splintered and off its game. Its leaders are having a difficult time with a Trump candidacy. A sizable number of GOP stars are finding excuses not to attend the convention, which is remarkable.

Yet the Democrats should take no comfort from this state of affairs. For starters, below the presidential level the party is struggling. Since 2008, Democrats have lost 69 seats in the U.S. House, 13 Senate seats, 12 governorships, and over 900 seats in state legislatures.

And while Clinton’s path to the presidency may be wider than Trump’s, that doesn’t mean she’s a strong candidate — at least, not this year. At a moment when voters clearly want change, she appears to favor incrementalism as the way to get things done in Washington. And despite the FBI’s decision that it wouldn’t bring criminal charges on her handling of emails when she was Secretary of State, the issue is clearly dogging her.

The British vote on Brexit is a reminder that resentments and anger can fly under the radar. Washington, where there’s money everywhere you turn, is a ripe target for “take-our-country-back” populism. The anti-establishment, anti-Washington mood should make both parties uneasy.

But then, so should the course of this election, which has put a premium on sound and fury at the cost of true engagement with the issues confronting the country. On that score, we all lose.

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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What they’re fighting over 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

Barring a surprise at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland later this month, the race for the presidency is set. So this seems a good time to step back and consider just what it is that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are fighting about.

I don’t mean where they stand on the issues, or whose vision is more compelling. I mean the office itself. The modern presidency is unique — and pretty far removed from what our Founders envisioned. It’s worth understanding what’s at stake as you watch these two people campaign for it.

As Americans we have an odd attitude toward the presidency. On the one hand, we’re leery of executive power, and often of the government the President symbolizes. Yet we’re also fascinated by the person who holds the office. When I was in Congress, if I had contact with the President, swarms of reporters would want to know every word he’d said. And people back home had an insatiable curiosity—about the President, his family, what they wore, where they traveled, how they treated people. Americans invest a lot of energy and attention in the President, whether they like or abhor him.

And it’s not just Americans. The President is not just the central player in our own government, but also in world affairs. Anywhere you travel, you’ll find people who are curious about the most visible American on the planet.

All of this is with good reason. Presidents control the political agenda in this country. They formulate the budget, set defense and foreign policy, develop the initiatives that drive domestic affairs, and create the contours of public debate. Congress, by contrast, reacts. In recent decades, it’s been rare to find Congress seizing the initiative on much of anything. So the President stands at the center of the government, not just in moments of crisis—when you’d expect it to be the case—but when it comes to the everyday running of the country.

Presidents have been opportunistic about this, doing what they must to succeed in the system they’ve been given. If they’ve been unable to get congressional approval, they’ve tried to work around it with executive orders; Democrat or Republican, they’ve worked hard to expand their power.

The job has always carried with it great responsibility, but the weight of the modern presidency is overwhelming. There is no job training for the position, and no President emerges unscathed from the office. Harry Truman’s comment about where the buck stops was absolutely correct. In a representative democracy, the ultimate power may lie with the voters, but every tough problem this nation faces percolates up to the President; if it were easily solvable, someone else would have taken care of it. I’ve found almost all the presidents I’ve met to be serious, intelligent, anxious to do the right thing, likeable—and always over-burdened.

The story used to be told about Franklin Roosevelt that when he gave a fireside chat, you could walk down a street and never miss a word, because every house would have the radio on. The presidency today is less of a bully pulpit, yet in policy, the President’s remains the strongest single voice in this country and the world.

Which is worth pondering. No President ever lives up to the expectations people have for him—presidents make mistakes both large and small, and their power is not limitless. But the balance of it in this country is unquestionably tilted in the direction of the White House, and that is not going to change.

So the question about the presidency that concerns me is how to hold the President accountable. He or she needs to be scrutinized, challenged, and held answerable to Congress and the public for his or her policies. There are today only rare opportunities for the vigorous give and take and close examination of a President that our system once provided. But how long can that continue before we cease to be a true representative democracy?

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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For those eligible, voting should be easy

 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

The elections process is not usually grist for inflammatory rhetoric. But this year has been different. Republican Donald Trump labeled the GOP primary process “crooked.” Democrat Bernie Sanders suggested his party’s use of super-delegates made its nominating process a “rigged system.” For many voters, the intricacies of voting rules quickly became a topic of overriding interest.

Now that the primaries are over, I hope Americans remain just as intrigued by the laws governing general-election voting in their states. Because at the moment, this country is engaged in an experiment with the democratic process that should rivet everyone who cares about representative government.

We’ve seen two diverging trends in the states in recent years. One approach has sought to make voting more difficult. Since the 2010 elections, 22 states have put laws in place narrowing voters’ ability to go to the polls. They have decreased the time allotted for voting; added tough ID requirements; reduced options for voting prior to Election Day; added proof-of-citizenship requirements; and made it necessary for voters to register well before election day. These steps, their backers contend, are necessary to guard against voter fraud and assure the integrity of the ballot.

Other states have moved in the opposite direction. They’ve made it easier to register to vote; have added longer hours for voting on election day; have moved to mail-in ballots; and encourage early voting. They’ve done all they can to make the process of voting simple and convenient.

On the whole, Republicans at the state level have favored greater restrictiveness and Democrats greater ease, but you don’t have to be a partisan of one side or the other to recognize that politicians believe a great deal is at stake. Whatever they give as their reasons for pushing a particular approach, you can be sure they are also calculating the effect of rules changes on the outcome of elections, and they’ll do all they can to tilt the rules in their favor.

Which is why the question of how to approach the right to vote isn’t going to be settled any time soon. There are a lot of court cases pending in the various states, and it’s likely there will be conflicting judicial opinions.

If we’re going to debate the electoral process as a nation, let’s keep in mind the core issue: it should be easy to vote—and hard to cheat. Casting your ballot is a fundamental constitutional right, and ensuring that every eligible voter can do so is basic to our system. Every American should be able to exercise his or her right to vote without feeling cowed—which is why I worry that efforts to limit voting will have a pernicious effect on our system of representative government.

The evidence on this is mixed. A recent paper by political scientists at UC San Diego analyzing turnout between 2008 and 2012 in states with strict voter ID laws found that they depressed voting overall—more among Democratic constituencies, but among Republicans, too. Yet recent research also suggests that the opposite is not true: easing voting rules in states that never tightened them does not necessarily boost turnout.

One certainty in all this is that a lot of people who are eligible to vote for various reasons do not choose to do so. Of the 219 million Americans eligible to vote in 2014, the Census Bureau reported last year, roughly 41 million were not registered; and turnout in actual elections is even lower. Voting behavior may be more related to motivation than it is to statutory activity.

A more pressing certainty is that our entire voting system needs attention. All too many jurisdictions try to run elections on the cheap, with machinery and processes that are inadequate to the task. Even now, 16 years after the 2000 presidential election revealed deep flaws in the patchwork of ways we record and tally votes, the system remains rickety.

“The vigor of American democracy rests on the vote of each citizen,” a national commission on voting once wrote. Keep that in mind this election year — and pay attention to how your state approaches its obligation to safeguard that vigor.

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.”

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The Case for limited government 

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

It has been 35 years since Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural speech as President — the one in which he said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Over that time, hostility toward government seems only to have grown, led by politicians and embraced by millions of Americans.

I find this troubling. Not because those agencies—or the government as a whole—are faultless, but because I don’t see how a democratic society and market economy can function without an effective government.

In fact, I’d argue that limited government is more often part of the solution than it is a problem. It funds core functions—such as infrastructure, the court system, and national security—that allow the private sector to flourish. It sustains national parks, interstate highways, the air traffic control system and other services that make this a vibrant society. It strives to protect Americans from hazardous food and drugs, unsafe workplaces, and toxic polluters. It has played a key role in asserting fairness for minorities, women and the most vulnerable people in our society.

This is not to say that government does not overreach, or that it always performs as it should. On occasion, its leaders make poor and misguided decisions; its legislators, however well intentioned, create wasteful and unneeded programs.

But we’re not going to do away with government. Instead, we have to make the sometimes comfortable, sometimes uneasy co-existence of the market and the government work.

So it’s crucial for our political leaders to find the right balance. To establish in clear terms where government should and should not be active. To test what works and what does not and then pursue the former and shut down the latter. To wring duplication out of the bureaucracy and rigorously pursue efficient, effective, and accountable government. To ensure tough, fair enforcement of the law. And to recognize that their focus on policy needs to be balanced by a focus on effective management and implementation of programs.

As a politician, you can always get applause for quoting the old line, “That government is best which governs least.” But list what government does that affects people’s everyday lives, and you’ll see members of that same audience nod their heads in agreement. It’s the balance between limited government and the private sector that it’s our job constantly to assess, debate, and get right.

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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Those who know Congress best are shaking their heads 

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

I had the good fortune last week to spend some time in Washington, D.C. with about a dozen former members of Congress. As you’d expect, we got to talking about the current Congress. Very quickly it turned out that the same question was troubling all of us: Why is it held in such low public esteem?

We represented both parties and a variety of eras, and had a range of experience under our belts. But we all found ourselves chagrined by what we’ve been witnessing. You have to understand that most former members of Congress believe deeply in the value of the institution for American representative government. We might take opposite sides of particular policy debates, but on one point we all agree: we want the institution itself to succeed and thrive. These days, it’s doing neither.

For starters, we were hard-pressed to come up with any real accomplishments for this Congress. It did pass a revision to No Child Left Behind, and a controversial expansion of cyber-surveillance capabilities — which it slipped into a must-pass budget bill. It also took the entirely uncontroversial step of broadening sanctions on North Korea. But that’s pretty much it.

In the country at large, people are fretting about control of our borders, stagnant wages, college expenses, the cost of health care, the opioid addiction crisis, the spread of ISIS, the strengthening effects of climate change. The administration is trying to keep the Zika virus from gaining a foothold in this country, and congressional inaction has already caused Puerto Rico to default on one set of obligations, with a much bigger default looming – and doomed airline passengers to longer and longer waits as the TSA struggles. Yet on Capitol Hill, no one seems particularly concerned. Instead, its members left town to campaign.

This may be unfair, but I can’t help but think about my first year in Congress. We enacted 810 bills, including the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Water Quality Act, and setting up the Departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development. Not every year was like that, but the contrast is inescapable. Among the group of people I was with last week — people who watch Congress closely — there was unanimity: this will go out as one of the least productive years in congressional history.

Worse, members show little interest in making Congress more productive. Our little group all remembered times when we or our colleagues pushed reform efforts to make the institution work better—and were struck that current members aren’t doing so. Most Americans belong to some group or another that’s trying to accomplish change for the better and improve itself at the same time. Why would Congress be an outlier? But it is.

Some of the observations we shared last week are old hat. Congress is excessively partisan, with too many of its members highly distrustful of the other party and inclined to blame it for Capitol Hill’s ailments. As an institution, it seems incapable of ridding itself of the bad habits it’s gotten into: the reliance on omnibus bills and continuing resolutions; timidity in the face of presidential power; a marked reluctance to use the levers of congressional authority — especially control of the federal budget—to prod or check executive action.

Yet none of us believe this is irreversible. We are all convinced that strong leadership in Congress could make an immense difference. In the past, effective legislators on both sides of the aisle—as committee chairs and as caucus leaders—have left behind them a legacy of great accomplishment. Democrat Emanuel Celler of New York and Republican William McCullough of Ohio joined forces to craft the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Democrat Wilbur Mills of Arkansas and Republican John Byrnes of Wisconsin together helped shape Medicare.

I won’t waste your time with a list of consummate legislators who were able to get things done. The point is simple: it may be a different time and legislative environment from 50 years ago, but strong leadership can make Congress work. On that, my former colleagues and I, Republicans and Democrats, found ourselves in full agreement.

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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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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