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Archive | Lee Hamilton Column

Why this Democrat wants a strong Republican Party 

 

By Lee H. Hamilton

I’ve been a Democrat all my life. I believe in the party’s values, I’m pleased when its candidates win elections, and I’m persuaded the country is better off when Democratic ideas get a fair shake in the public arena. But none of this means that I favor a weak Republican Party. Indeed, just the opposite.

Before my Democratic friends drum me out of the party’s ranks, let me explain why.

The short answer is, our nation is stronger and our representative democracy healthier when we have two strong parties. A single political party that’s able to dominate public policy-making undermines the give-and-take that’s crucial to effective policy and leaves us weaker as a country.

Why is this? Let’s start with the big picture. If you think about the issues we confront—from the impact of climate change to the fight against terrorism to rebuilding an economy that serves poor and working families as well as it does the wealthy—it’s hard to argue that a single perspective or ideology really has all the answers. None of us, and neither political party, has a monopoly on wisdom.

Moreover, this country is huge and varied, and the legitimacy of the political system rests on its ability to give voice to the multitude of concerns and attitudes held by the American people. Some prefer the GOP’s approach, others the Democrats’, but it’s important they all have a political party to turn to. The more people feel that no one represents them or their views, the more alienated they become from the democratic process.

So the country benefits when two robust parties face off — in elections, in Congress, and in the 50 legislatures. When they can present their views, defend them, adjust them, and negotiate, compromise, and move forward, we’re being well served.

Which brings me to the Republican Party of today. I don’t want to get into the split between backers of Donald Trump and the traditional Republican leadership—that’s for the GOP to sort out, and they certainly don’t want the advice of an old Democrat. But there’s no doubt that the Republican Party has reached a crossroads.

If Trump wins the presidency, he’ll be the chief actor in determining the future of his party and what it stands for. If he loses, the GOP will more than likely move back toward its more traditional views as a party that embraces the free market, advocates for a muscular approach to national security, believes in American exceptionalism and our role in leading the world away from chaos, is filled with fiscal hawks who think that we have to curb entitlement programs, and pays attention to a business community that believes trade wars—especially with Mexico or China—would be catastrophic.

I suppose I’m showing my biases here, but I believe that a robust Republican Party will strengthen its willingness to improve and broaden the policy debate and move it away from steps to impede it. This would be a GOP that advocates for limited government, wants to reform our unwieldy tax code, and is determined to remain fiscally responsible so that deficits don’t explode. I want to see Republicans tackle our healthcare system by reforming it using market mechanisms. I want Republicans to confront regulations that hamper the formation and growth of businesses, especially small businesses. And I want them to remain inclined toward devolving power away from Washington, giving states more control over such basic responsibilities as highways, welfare, and education.

Each of these issues has been at the center of the national agenda for many years, suggesting their difficulty. We need proposals from both sides that are realistic, coherent, and based on numbers that add up. We need parties that are at the top of their game, generating solutions to the issues we confront that can get vetted in Congress, and be amended and reshaped to reflect the realities of a divided country. And we need parties that are prepared to negotiate to move us beyond our current gridlock.

This can best happen when a healthy Republican Party is competing with a healthy Democratic Party. And at the moment, that’s not what we’re seeing.

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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Social Media’s Challenge to Democracy

By Lee Hamilton

By Lee Hamilton

I’ve been involved in politics for the better part of a lifetime, and have spoken at a lot of public meetings over the years. There’s one question, I think, that I’ve heard more than any other: “If I want to be an informed citizen, which sources of information should I consult?”

For many years, I had a set answer for this. Read one or more of the respected national news sources, I’d respond. I’m not sure how good that answer was at the time, but I know for certain it would be inadequate now.

The internet and social media have upended our expectations of what it means to be well informed. Platforms and websites that take advantage of online and mobile connectivity are like a firehose, providing enormous quantities of information, opinion, news, statements, videos, images, analysis, charts, graphs—all of it instantly available.

The question is what impact does this have on the public dialogue, and on representative democracy?

Clearly, these are powerful tools. As the rise of the Tea Party and the alarm over price increases for the EpiPen demonstrate, they can galvanize large, energetic groups of people who oppose a specific target. They make more information quickly available from more sources. They give citizens multiple ways to engage the attention and interest of policy makers—and give policy makers multiple ways to gauge public opinion and seek to understand the interests and needs of constituents.

But if information has become more ubiquitous and powerful, so has misinformation. It spreads rapidly, passed along from user to user with no check. Posts tend to have no room for nuance; arguments can be explosive and arguers aggressive; drama and hysteria fuel polarization; special interests can’t help but take advantage of the context-free nature of social media.

The key question is: Does the ubiquity of information really help citizens understand complex issues, weigh competing arguments, and reach discriminating judgments about politics?

The answer, of course, is that it’s a mixed bag. Certainly, the information world we live in today is putting more stress on individual voters to make discriminating choices and on our representative democracy, which rests on institutions that were designed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Our political process has proved resilient over centuries, but social media poses a powerful challenge. They’ve brought great gifts and equally great risks, and we’d be prudent to be cautious.

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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The media’s responsibility to our democracy 

 

By Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

Politicians spend a good bit of their time complaining about the media. But why should they have all the fun?

I’m going to join in, though I tend to get upset about different things than most sitting politicians do. You see, I don’t actually mind when journalists—whether in print, on television or online—treat what politicians say with skepticism. That means they’re doing their jobs.

But this doesn’t happen nearly as much these days as it should. The media today is less objective, more ideological, and much showier than it once was. What you see can be eye-catching—both the graphics and the personalities—but it is also brash and relentlessly self-promoting. A lot of journalists don’t just want to report the news, they want to be players and affect policy. They see politics as a blood sport, often exaggerating the differences among players.

As one observer said, the media is drawn to “superficiality, sensationalism, scandal, and sleaze.” They’re all too happy to seize on small points of contention and fan them into major points of discord. They make building a consensus—the key task of the democratic process—much harder.

The field has been moving in this direction over decades, and there’s a reason for it: all these changes have been well received by the public. They draw viewers, readers and clicks. And they’ve encouraged consumers to pay attention only to the sources that reflect and broadcast their own viewpoint.

I don’t want to be a fogey here. Yes, I grew up in the days of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and I still think they were solid journalists, but what I miss is not the voice-of-authority-from-on-high that’s so often associated with them. Instead, what I too often find lacking now is the spirit that drove the profession in those days. I think the news media had a sense of responsibility to make representative democracy function. Journalists imbued their work with a palpable sense that they were involved in a public service.

There are still really excellent journalists out there who are doing their best to serve both their profession and the country. Every day they struggle to make sense of enormously complex events. What they understand, and what I wish more of their colleagues believed, is that democracy demands journalism that improves its workings. Properly done, journalism can bridge differences, help consensus emerge, improve the knowledge and judgment of voters, and sharpen the performance of public officials and government as a whole.

In the end, the democratic process is about overcoming disagreement. This is virtually impossible without a solid base of information and analysis.

Governing well is immensely difficult, and good journalism can keep government open and honest, which serves not just the voters, but politicians who are trying to resolve the problems facing the country. Journalists can and should be watchdogs, keeping a watchful eye on politicians, what they do, what they say…and what they don’t do or say. They should serve not just the elites, but the underdogs and have-nots in society.

The independence of our press was hard to win, and it’s vital that we sustain it. People must have sources they can rely on in order to make our system work. Our democracy needs well-informed citizens making decisions based on facts about both policies and politicians.

This means that the model of the journalist that seems to be going out of fashion—reporters who were reasonably objective, independent of outside groups, and even independent of their company’s owners—is actually crucial to representative government. Curious, skeptical journalists who point out inconsistencies, draw attention to mistakes, call out misleading statements, and identify outright lies serve a larger purpose: they provide citizens what they need to know in order to be a good citizen, and public officials what they need in order to do their work well.

This is quite an ideal, especially in this age of economic turmoil within the media universe. But I don’t think it’s too much to hope that as the profession sorts out its future, it takes seriously its leadership role in advancing the public good, and doesn’t sacrifice its part in making representative democracy work properly.

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 does Congress need? Your attention!

 

By Lee Hamilton

Now that the conventions are over, I know that all eyes are on the fall presidential campaign. But I’m going to ask you to shift your focus a bit, to Congress. Don’t do it as a favor to me. Do it as a favor to the country.

Congress is in the midst of a seven-week break. Its members left Washington in mid-July; they’ll be back after Labor Day. They did manage to do a few things, like pass legislation providing resources for combating the heroin and opioid crisis. But what they left undone is astonishing. They departed without dealing with a $1.1 billion measure to combat the Zika virus. They didn’t take up immigration or tax reform or gun legislation. They left behind a pile of spending bills, which means they’ll have about four weeks once they return to figure out how to keep the government operating. Yet again.

We’re all tired of this. I don’t think a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me, “What can we do about it?” So let me tell you.

First, the system can work. What we’ve seen in recent years on Capitol Hill does not need to be the future. But it takes skill to forge consensus, make tradeoffs, assuage egos, and accommodate the vastly different points of view that are inevitable in a diverse nation. And it takes determination to overcome the inevitable setbacks and stumbling blocks in order to govern.

The problem is, Congress has shown virtually no interest in this. Its members are very good at attacking political opponents, and not so adept at governing.

So what kind of qualities would produce a more productive body? Simply put, members who have a sense of responsibility to the country and to the institution envisioned by our Founders; who understand their special role in making Congress an effective institution; who cooperate across the aisle—not merely in rhetoric, or when they’re standing in front of the cameras, but also when they’re drafting legislation; who can construct a bill and get it passed; who know how to legislate in order to affect change, not merely score political points; who want to safeguard Congress’s role as a co-equal branch of government, not pass power to the President, the Fed, or the bureaucracy.

Many current members of Congress have never seen these qualities in action, but the committee rooms and chambers they inhabit certainly have. Sam Rayburn of Texas brought rural electrification into being and transformed the lives of millions. George Fallon of Maryland shaped the interstate highway system, which in one way or another has affected every American life. Democrat Emanuel Celler and Republican William McCullough brought civil rights legislation to the country. Edith Green of Oregon was the mother of Title IX. Talented legislators—Carl Albert, Mike Mansfield, Barber Conable, Louis Stokes, and Lindy Boggs—were skilled at helping their colleagues see their way to compromise; they took pleasure in making Congress work. And it wasn’t just leaders. The success of Congress over the years has depended upon members who were not well known but who took their responsibilities seriously and believed the institution simply had to work.

My point is, we’ve had a functional Congress before. That means we can produce one again.

But I choose those words “we” and “produce” carefully. Making it happen depends on you. As a voter, you have to go beyond asking about the candidates’ positions on substantive issues. In addition, you have to judge whether a candidate has the will and the capability to reassert the role of Congress, to get legislation passed, and to work with colleagues who don’t necessarily agree with them.

My fear is that, just as many contemporary members of Congress have never seen an effective Congress and show few signs of knowing how to make it work, perhaps voters have simply stopped expecting it. Voters have legitimate reasons to be discouraged about Congress. But they should remember the recent past, which shows that with the right kind of legislators, Congress can get things done—and they should begin to reject politicians who have proven again and again that they can’t get anything done.

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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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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