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President and Congress should work together on military intervention 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

In his speech last week outlining his plans to use military force against the jihadists of the Islamic State, President Obama gave Congress only passing mention. “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL,” he said. “But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together.”

He’s right, of course. But that’s not the half of it.

Our process for deciding to use force has not caught up with these dangerous times. It has been decades since Congress asserted any meaningful role; its members prefer to avoid a potentially difficult political vote, let the President take the lead, and then criticize him if he was wrong.

There are certainly occasions when the President must act alone. If we’ve been attacked or hostilities are imminent or some emergency presents itself for which force is the only response, we’d expect the President to respond effectively.

But there are powerful political reasons for making the decision to use force abroad a joint one with Congress, in all but emergencies. When our nation must deal with controversial, complicated questions, there is great value to making the President articulate his analysis of the situation and the reasons for his decisions, and to test that thinking beyond close advisors who naturally tend to support him. The best place to do so is in Congress.

Moreover, military action supported by both the President and Congress carries more legitimacy at home and more conviction abroad. The U.S. is in a far stronger position before the world if it is clear that the branches of government are unified and we are speaking with one voice as a nation.

It is common wisdom that our Constitution is ambiguous on war powers, since it makes the President the commander in chief, yet gives Congress the ability to declare war. In a sense, though, the Constitution’s message is anything but ambiguous: by giving a role to each branch, it clearly considers the use of force to be a shared decision.

This imposes a responsibility on Congress. Congress cannot be a bystander when it comes to the grave decision to use our military abroad. It, too, needs to take ownership of decisions to use force, for the good of the American people’s understanding and acceptance of the issues at stake, and for the benefit of the nation’s profile abroad.

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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The Summer of Our Discontent

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By Lee H. Hamilton

Despite these last few months of hot and lazy days, it’s been hard not to notice a cold political wind blowing through the country. The magazine Foreign Affairs captured it with its latest cover, a mockup of a travel poster featuring a crumbling U.S. Capitol with the tagline, “See America: Land of Decay and Dysfunction.”

Americans are clearly uneasy. In early August, an NBC-Wall St. Journal poll reported that three-quarters of those surveyed lacked confidence that the next generation would be better off—the most pessimistic results in the history of the poll.

This is a ground-shaking turnabout. Since well before I began my political career in the early 1960s, the keystone of our politics was an unflagging optimism that as Americans we could face head-on the task of improving our own and others’ lives and deliver on our responsibility to future generations. Now, that’s no longer the case.

Why not? Partly, it’s the economy: growth has been sluggish, we’re not generating enough good jobs, and the benefits of the recovery have flowed more to some than to the many. The growing awareness of a lopsided society—one in which a rising tide fails to lift all boats—has put many people in a surly mood. That problem of income inequality is joined to a host of others—from climate change to crumbling infrastructure to a world in which the forces of chaos and turmoil appear to be expanding.

Yet I think Foreign Affairs has nailed the biggest factor: the perceived dysfunction of our political system. Americans don’t expect miracles, but they do expect political leaders to make progress, and they haven’t been seeing much.

I can understand why so many people would be pessimistic, yet I don’t find myself sharing their fatalism. That’s because political moments are just that: moments. Over the long reach of our history, we’ve learned time and again that when our political leaders do focus on our challenges, speak to one another directly, and are determined to find a solution to our problems, they can overcome their differences and make progress.

There is no shortage of challenges facing the system. But I am convinced that they are no match for an aroused and determined public that recognizes we are all in this together, that we can adapt to changing circumstances, and that we should not give up on the system.

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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Why Incumbents Keep Getting Reelected

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By Lee H. Hamilton

It’s no news that Congress is unpopular. In fact, at times it seems like the only real novelty on Capitol Hill would be a jump in its approval rating.

So here’s the interesting thing: nearly three-quarters of Americans want to throw out most members of Congress, including their own representative, yet the vast majority of incumbents will be returning to Capitol Hill in January. In other words, Americans scorn Congress but keep re-electing its members. How could this be?

The first thing to remember is that members of Congress didn’t get there by being lousy politicians. They know as well as you and I that Congress is unpopular, and they’re masters at running against it — appearing to be outsiders trying to get in, rather than insiders who produce the Congress they pretend to disdain.

Just as important, incumbents enjoy an overwhelming advantage in elections. They have a large staff whose jobs focus on helping constituents. They’re paid a good salary, so they don’t have to worry about supporting their families while they campaign. They get to spend their terms effectively campaigning year-round, not just at election time, and they are able to saturate their state or district with mass mailings.

Incumbents get the honored place in the parade, the prime speaking position, the upper hand when it comes to raising money; challengers have to fight for visibility and money. In fact, challengers are at a disadvantage at almost every point in a campaign. From building name recognition to arranging meetings to building credibility with editorial boards, donors, and opinion leaders, they’re trudging uphill.

But there’s another reason incumbents keep getting re-elected that’s also worth considering: voters — that’s you and me. Most Americans don’t vote, and those who do often cast their ballots for narrow or unusual reasons. They like the way they got treated by the incumbent’s staff, or they shook his or her hand at a county fair, or they like his or her stand on a particular social or economic issue. Whatever the case, they don’t look at an incumbent’s entire record: votes on a cross-section of vital issues; willingness to work with members of different ideologies and backgrounds; ability to explain Washington back home and represent home in Washington; skill at forging consensus on tough policy challenges.

It’s really no mystery that incumbent members get re-elected. Their advantages are baked into the system.

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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Are we doomed to polarization? 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

We Americans are trapped in a political dilemma. We all like representative democracy, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing.

The reason for this dissatisfaction is clear. Polls in recent years detail a polarized nation, divided both ideologically and politically. In the public’s eye, Washington gets most of the blame for this.

Yet Congress and the political world around it reflect the rest of the country more than we’d like to believe. Our nation is divided ideologically. And though we deplore negative politics, we respond to it and even encourage our favorite partisans to engage in it. Anyone who becomes President today does so with nearly half the country opposed to him the day he takes office. Moreover, we face a long list of issues where decisive action may be impossible, from abortion, to gun control, to immigration. These issues divide the nation, with no clear path forward.

Our admired political system, in other words, is not working well. So how do we resolve our dilemma?

Several procedural steps could ease the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Among them, the House and Senate could begin by scheduling themselves so that they’re in session at the same time. Congressional leaders and the President ought to meet at least once a month. Open primaries would help moderate the nation’s politics, as would bipartisan redistricting commissions capable of doing away with gerrymandered districts. Increasing voter participation and improving the integrity of our elections would also help. Limiting the Senate filibuster would open up debate and forestall endless stalemates.

It’s worth remembering that American politics is dynamic, not static. Change occurs, sometimes quickly, but more often slowly. We won’t forever be this evenly divided, because public opinion will eventually evolve and the system will respond.

Which raises my final point. Even when our frustration with division and discord spills over into impatience with the system itself, our obligations as American citizens remain the same. We face complex problems that demand a willingness to exercise the values of representative democracy: tolerance, mutual respect, accepting ideological differences, working to build consensus. Our core values accept that the differences in opinions among us will continue, but also compel us to find a way through them so the country can move forward. In the end, we created our political dilemma and are responsible for working our way through it.

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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The Lesson Congress should learn from the VA scandal

By Lee H. Hamilton

V-Lee-Hamilton-webLike other federal scandals before it, the mess involving VA hospitals has followed a well-trod path. First comes the revelation of misdoing. Then comes the reaction: a shocked public, an administration on the defensive, and grandstanding members of Congress. Finally, major reform bills get introduced, debated, and then put aside when the heat dies down, or the target agency gets more money thrown at the problem.

With the VA, we’re at the reform part of the cycle. In its rush to address public outrage, Congress is proposing dramatic changes that could have benefited from more thorough consideration.

The irony is that this need not have happened—not with the VA, nor with the IRS, or FEMA, or any of the other cases in recent years where the federal bureaucracy proved to be dysfunctional and Congress rushed in with a half-baked fix. Mostly what is needed is for Congress to do its job properly in the first place.

This means exercising its oversight responsibilities and catching problems before they mushroom. Diligent oversight can repair unresponsive bureaucracies, expose misconduct, and help agencies and departments become more effective.

To do this, Congress first needs to know what’s happening. Performance, budget, personnel, management challenges, major and minor problems: members of Congress ought to be experts on all of this. Understanding the facts, working cooperatively with the federal agency, and anticipating problems is a far more useful approach than Congress’s usual pattern of throwing up its hands at a scandal and blaming everyone else for the problem.

Congress must also get serious about reforming the federal bureaucracy. Federal employees deserve to feel they’re being listened to, respected, and treated fairly, but management also must have flexibility to hire and fire, and to handle personnel problems constructively.

If Congress wants federal agencies to work better, it has to work tirelessly to understand problems and help repair them. It cannot eliminate politics from this oversight process, but politics should not drive the whole oversight enterprise.

The point is that many failures of the federal bureaucracy can be avoided with robust congressional oversight. It’s a crucial part of improving the performance of government, and Congress has a duty to get ahead of problems, not lag constantly behind. Unless it’s willing to accept its responsibility for diligent oversight, the next scandal is only a matter of time.

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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What our country needs from the press

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

These days, the scandal involving long wait times at VA hospitals can feel like some made-in-Washington spectacle generated by politicians looking for headlines. But it isn’t. It had its genesis in a late-April report on CNN that as many as 40 veterans may have died waiting for appointments at VA hospitals in Phoenix.

This investigative piece was notable for two reasons. It’s been a while since anews story so quickly provoked such a storm of public indignation that a cabinet secretary—deservedly or not—had no choice but to resign. And it’s a reminder of just how important old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting remains to our system of government, especially when it uncovers official misdoing.

One of the basic truths about our representative democracy is that it does not work without solid information. Public officials, both elected and appointed, need to know what’s happening in the communities they serve, and the people who live in those communities need to know what the government they elect and fund is doing in their name.

A lot of forces try to distort that flow of information, or even block it altogether—from officials who aren’t living up to our expectations to politicians counting on public ignorance to lobbyists and advocates hoping to sway public opinion. This is why the press—and by this I mean print, broadcast and online journalists—is so crucial to our country’s health. It is, or ought to be, a steady, dispassionate, truth-seeking, skeptical and tough-minded force for public understanding.

In an ideal world, our media would focus on the serious side of the news. It would explore and highlight the substance of issues, not simply the politics of issues. It would detail the facts underlying a story, rather than dwelling on the personalities at play in the story. There is a place for entertainment that plays off the news—as people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have amply demonstrated—but in their search for an audience, news executives shouldn’t let it become a substitute for dogged reporting and the traditional values of accuracy, truth and fairness.

These are not easy times for journalists, however. I don’t pretend to understand all the forces that are reshaping what we see, hear and read in the news media, and I know that news executives are struggling with a host of formidable economic and social challenges.

These days, only a handful of news organizations in the country have the resources — both human and financial — to spend weeks or months chasing an investigation. Given the cuts that have stripped newsrooms of the expertise they once contained, I sometimes wonder whether the kind of reporting that brought us Watergate and uncovered the Enron scandal could still occur.

Because make no mistake: we need maximum oversight. You and I need it if we’re to be certain that misdeeds cannot hide in the darker corners of government. And Congress needs it if it’s to carry out one of its core responsibilities: overseeing the operations of government. All of us rely on the press to check abuses of power, see that laws are properly implemented, hold officials accountable, and tell those officials when their policies and operations are failing or going astray. Without a strong independent press, those in power could simply tell us what they want us to know and we’d be none the wiser. And that is no state of affairs for a democracy.

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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Get ready for more of the same

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By Lee H. Hamilton

 

I felt a brief surge of hope a few weeks ago about Congress. It was returning from Easter recess, and Capitol Hill was filled with talk about immigration reform, a minimum-wage bill, a spending bill to keep the government operating, and maybe even funding for transportation infrastructure. But, as I said, it was brief.

That’s because the talk turned out to be just that. Immigration reform appears headed nowhere. Likewise, tax reform and budgetary discipline. The minimum-wage increase died in the Senate. Shoring up the Highway Trust Fund, which could go bankrupt at the end of  summer, requires either massive new spending or a hefty rise in the gasoline tax — and Congress, of course, is inclined to do neither. The one step it appears ready to take is to approve a short-term spending bill, and that’s only because no one in either party wants to risk the public outrage that would attend a government shutdown right before an election.

Sure, with this year’s congressional elections fast approaching, neither party wants to force its members into tough votes. Yet listening to each party in Congress, it’s hard to imagine that they inhabit the same country. And that doesn’t seem likely to change as a result of the mid-term elections.

As a nation, we face a lot of challenges we’re not addressing. Immigration reform, tax reform, trade liberalization, reforming the International Monetary Fund — all need congressional action. So do the nation’s armed services and the Defense Department, which face serious cuts because of sequestration. Climate change isn’t even on the congressional agenda.

Which is why local governments are trying to deal with a global issue by passing zoning laws and ordinances. Indeed, congressional inaction is spurring states to cancel planned summer bridge- and road-repair projects, and big-city mayors to fill the national power vacuum by going ahead with their own minimum-wage measures, tax increases, and other initiatives designed to legislate where Congress won’t.

Here’s my fear. Congress is already derided at home as bumbling and ineffective. The perception abroad is even more worrisome: Capitol Hill’s inability to act is seen as a key piece of America’s decline as a superpower. If we’ve got several more years of drift and dysfunction ahead of us, then the institution that our founders considered to be the keystone of American democracy risks becoming not part of the solution, but the core of the problem.

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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The Justices and the Scramble for Cash

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By Lee H. Hamilton

Many trends in American politics and government today make me worry about the health of our representative democracy. These include the decline of Congress as a powerful, coequal branch of government, the accumulation of power in the presidency, and the impact of money on the overall political process.

Recently, the Supreme Court’s five-member majority declared that it’s unconstitutional to limit the aggregate amount an individual can give to candidates, political parties, and political action committees. Campaign contributions amplify free speech, these justices maintain, and campaign finance laws violate the First Amendment: any limit on the ability of individuals to contribute to candidates is a restraint of free speech. The only legitimate cause for the government to step in is to fight blatant, obvious corruption; it should not act to limit access and influence by well-to-do donors. The result of this decision will almost certainly increase the impact of money on the political system.

The Supreme Court decision seems to be insensitive to this. Politicians need large sums to run for office, and they are keenly attuned to generous donors. Inevitably, this gives more political influence to the relative handful of wealthy donors who choose to “invest” in politics, and it dampens the influence of voters who don’t have the financial means to command attention.

What can we do? My preference would be that the President and Congress step in and design rules of campaign finance that would reverse the growing influence of money on our campaigns, but that does not appear likely to happen. Indeed, even as we speak, opponents of campaign finance laws are preparing challenges to the remaining limits on individual contributions and to the easily avoided disclosure laws we already have. I’m certain they’ll get a sympathetic hearing in the Supreme Court.

Paradoxically, this may be our best hope. Because I also believe that Americans are growing tired of the outsized impact that great wealth enjoys in politics, and that a backlash to the Court’s decisions is taking shape. My sense is that growing numbers of ordinary voters are recognizing that money is a poison in our system. I fervently hope that support for public financing and for muscular disclosure laws will grow with time, because our politics will be more democratic, more honest, and more free if we reduce the impact of money on elections.

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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Where Congress falls short … and where it doesn’t

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By Lee H. Hamilton

 

At a public gathering the other day, someone asked me how I’d sum up my views on Congress. It was a good question, because it forced me to step back from worrying about the current politics of Capitol Hill and take a longer view.

Congress, I said, does some things fairly well. Its members for the most part are people of integrity who want to serve their constituents and the country. They also strive to reflect their constituents’ views, though they tend to under-appreciate voters’ pragmatism and over-estimate their ideological purity. Still, they’re politicians: their success rests on being accessible to their constituents, understanding what they want, and aligning themselves with that interest.

Yet for all the attractive individual qualities that members of Congress display, their institutional performance falls short. They argue endlessly, pander to contributors and powerful interests, posture both in the media and in countless public meetings, and in the end it amounts to very little. They discuss and debate a lot of problems, but don’t produce effective results.

This may be because many members of our national legislature have a constricted view of what it means to be a legislator. They’re satisfied with making a political statement by giving a speech, casting a vote, or getting a bill through the chamber they serve in, rather than writing legislation that will make it through both houses of Congress, get signed by the President, and become law. The days appear to be over when members of Congress strove to be masters of their subject matter and legislators in fact as well as in name.

Perhaps because they’re forced to spend so much time raising money and listening to well-heeled people and groups, they also seem to have trouble seeing current affairs from the perspective of ordinary people. They fall captive to the politics of any given issue, rather than thinking about the much harder question of how you govern a country with all its residents in mind. They don’t see the necessity, in a divided Congress and a divided country, of negotiation and compromise.

Plenty of forces are responsible for this state of affairs, from the outsized role of money in the political process to today’s hyper-partisanship to TV-driven sound-bite debates. But in the end, it’s still a source of great frustration to the American people, me included, that well-meaning, talented individuals cannot make the institution work better.

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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There’s an alternative to the Imperial Presidency

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

In his State of the Union speech to Congress last month, President Obama drew widespread attention for pledging to use his executive authority to advance his priorities. He insisted he intends to act with or without Congress, and listed well over a dozen actions he plans to take by executive order.

Plenty of people were happy about this. The speech was applauded by pundits who have given up on Congress, and believe the only way to move forward is by strengthening the presidency. The present government is paralyzed, they argue. A stronger presidency would get Washington moving again.

Others are alarmed by this approach. The President, they say, is trampling on the constitutional separation of powers, and grabbing powers for himself that were meant to be shared with Congress.

The problem with this debate is that it’s missing a key part of the equation. Yes, our system needs a strong presidency. But it also needs a strong Congress. We are best off as a nation when the two consult, interact, and work together as powerful branches.

Every president in recent memory has expanded the power of his office and been accused of a power grab. They’ve had plenty of motivation to do so. The modern world demands decisive action. Americans tend to support presidents who act forcefully. Congress is complex and hard to work with.

Yet there are limits to this approach, because in the end there is no substitute for legislation. Executive orders lack the permanence and force of law, so they can be hard to implement and can be cancelled by a later president. They don’t benefit from consensus-building and consultation with voices independent of the President’s.

Consensus-building can’t happen in a vacuum, however. Without a strong Congress able to find its way effectively through the thickets of lawmaking, this President and his successors will surely continue to address the nation’s challenges on their own. The question is, how far down that road can we go before Congress becomes irrelevant, with too much power and too much potential for the abuse of power in presidential hands?

The march toward presidential unilateralism dangerously undercuts our constitutional system. Before we give up on the separation of powers, let’s try strengthening Congress. This may not be the easy route, but if we don’t take it, representative democracy itself is in doubt.

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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