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Archive | Lee Hamilton Column

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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Trust … but definitely verify

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

Of all the numbers thrown at us over the course of last year, one stands out for me. I fervently hope we can avoid repeating it this year. That number is 12. It’s the percentage of Americans in a December Quinnipiac poll who said they trust the government in Washington to do what is right most or all of the time. It’s a depressingly small number, especially compared to the 41 percent who say they “hardly ever” trust the government. On top of that, a few months ago an AP poll found that fewer than a third of Americans trust one another. The poll’s message is clear: our society is in the midst of a crisis in trust.

Trust is essential to our political system and our way of life. The belief that people and institutions will do what they say they will do is the coin of the realm in our society. It is what allows people to work together—in their daily interactions with others and in their communities, legislatures and Congress. Negotiation, compromise, collegiality, and the mechanisms our complex and diverse society depends upon are impossible without trust.

You could argue that we see all around us the results of our trust deficit. Government dysfunction, an economy performing below its potential, public officials’ scandals and misdeeds, trusted institutions’ willingness to skirt the law and standards of good conduct, our social safety net under attack because people mistrust recipients—all of these speak to a society struggling as trust weakens.

Yet here’s the question. Do the polls match your experience? In my case, they do not. Trust is still a big part of my dealings with institutions and individuals, most of whom are good people trying to live a decent life and to be helpful to others. Trust may have weakened, but most of us do not see or experience a corrupt America. A sense of community remains crucially important to make this country safe and secure for ourselves and our children. Events in recent years have given us plenty of reason to be distrustful. Clearly, healthy skepticism is warranted in the wake of the NSA revelations and other evidence of government and corporate misbehavior. In the end, however, “trust but verify” is still the golden standard. Our ability to function and move forward as a society rests on trust. Think about 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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