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Congress says, “War Powers? What War Powers?” 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

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The Way Forward for Congress 

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Money and Politics: We Need Change Now!

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Learning to Be a Citizen 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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Governing by crisis isn’t governing at all 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. Go to Facebook to express your views about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” us on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University,” and share our postings with your friends.

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With the budget, the President calls the shots

 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

It may not be obvious from the news coverage, but a good bit of Congress’s 2015 agenda just landed on Capitol Hill with a thud. I mean this literally. The federal budget that President Obama recently submitted runs to 2,000 pages.

This is the most important government document produced each year, so its heft is more than physical. The budget is how we decide what share of this country’s economic resources we should devote to government—and how we should spend them.

Which is why the political maneuvering begins the moment it arrives. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard a budget declared “dead on arrival.”

Yet here’s what you need to remember: Congress changes only a small portion of the budget. In general, all but five or ten percent of the White House’s spending blueprint will make it through intact. The President’s budget, in other words, is never “dead on arrival.”

This is not to say that what Congress does will be unimportant. The debate from here on out will be specifically about taxing and spending priorities—about how much money should go to defense, or homeland security, or social welfare—and more generally about who has the best ideas for addressing the country’s needs.

Congress faces important questions. The deficit, which in past years was the focus of furious debate, holds less attention this year because we’ve made so much progress in reducing it. On the other hand, the federal debt—what we owe to creditors who financed our accumulated annual deficits—is higher than it’s been for generations. We do not need to panic about our finances, but we can’t afford to be complacent either.

There will be voices in Congress over the next few months urging that we curb spending sharply. In a recovering economy still beset with income stagnation, I’d argue that slamming hard on the brakes would be a mistake. Instead, we need to shift our spending toward investment, focusing on areas that generate or underpin economic growth: infrastructure, research and development, education.

Congress used to reign supreme in budget-making. Now, the President has become the chief budget-maker. The maneuvering on Capitol Hill over the next few months will nudge the country in one direction or another. But our basic course was already set by the time those 2,000 pages hit lawmakers’ desks.

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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Can we have a regular congress? 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

You probably didn’t notice, but the Senate passed a milestone a couple of weeks back. Before 2015 was a month old, senators had already had a chance to vote up-or-down on more amendments than they did in all of 2014.

This is a promising sign that new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might have meant it when he declared last year that he wants the Senate to return to the “regular order” of debate and amendments. For the last few weeks, a favorite inside-the-Beltway guessing game has been whether he’d be willing to stick with it in the face of demands, sure to come, to reduce debate and amendments and expedite approval of bills.

I know you’re thinking this is just inside baseball. Let me explain why it matters. In Washington, the line between process and policy is blurred. The policies Congress produces are forged by the process it uses, and the leaders of the two houses have great power over that process and hence over the results. Talking about how Congress makes laws is the same as talking about what it does in those laws.

So a return to the “regular order,” on either or both sides of the Capitol, has enormous implications. There is no single solution to Congress’s problems, but it’s hard to imagine Congress can get past its dysfunction without adopting the regular order.

If you’re uncertain what I mean, you’re not alone. There are a lot of lawmakers who have very little idea what it entails either because they were elected after Congress abandoned it in the 1990s.

At its simplest, the regular order is what you learned in school. A member introduces a bill, which is referred to committee. The committee hears from experts, looks at its options, considers amendments, and then reports the bill to the floor, where there’s more debate and deliberation. The other body goes through the same process, and the separate bills they produce get reconciled in a conference committee, where the members also talk to the President’s representatives about what he’ll want to see in order to approve the measure. Finally, the President approves or rejects the bill. The process, though never perfect, is relatively open, fair to all members, and promotes accountability.

Over the last few decades, however, Congress has adopted an alternative approach: the mega-bill. These bills usually run to hundreds if not thousands of pages. They bypass the committees and get drafted in the offices of the leadership. They limit amendments to a few, if any. They limit debate. They constrict — if not eliminate — thoughtful consideration and largely dispense with votes except for an up or down vote on the entire mega-bill. They invite all kinds of last-minute and under-the-table deals. They shut ordinary members out of the process, undermine participation, shield Congress from public scrutiny, and are, in short, an outrage to democracy. Yet they’ve become a habit on Capitol Hill.

Why? They’re convenient and concentrate power in the hands of the leadership.

At a very basic level I’ve never understood why they’ve had such staying power. The regular order holds clear advantages for the majority of legislators. It’s more open, produces more accountability, and gives ordinary members a sense they’ve had a fair shot at influencing the course of national policy. This is no minor consideration. When the process works well, it produces better-quality legislation and pride in the institution, because members know they’re taking part in fair procedures. When members take pride in the work being done around them, they communicate that sense to their constituents.

But reliance on mega-bills has imposed a great cost on Washington. Federal agencies cannot plan ahead. Government operations get disrupted. Uncertainty abounds. Backroom deals flourish. Secrecy pervades the process from beginning to end. Public confidence in government erodes. Members themselves feel shunted to the sidelines.

It is hard to get voters focused on congressional process when they’re so focused on particular issues — how a candidate feels about climate change or abortion. But the plain truth is that the regular order enhances the chance that legislation that truly represents what’s best for Americans will emerge from Capitol Hill. Maybe one day Congress will come to believe this, too.

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.

For information about our educational resources and programs, visit our website at www.centeroncongress.org. Go to Facebook to express your views about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” us on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University.”

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It’ll never be time for term limits on Congress 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

It didn’t get much attention at the time, but the elections last November did more than give Republicans a majority in the U.S. Senate. Voters also added to the ranks of people on both sides of Capitol Hill who believe members of Congress should serve a limited number of terms.

Americans are frustrated with the federal government as a whole and with Congress in particular, and are searching for a simple solution. The notion that the bums could get thrown out automatically has great appeal.

I should say up front that you’re not going to hear a strong argument in favor of term limits from a guy who served 34 years in Congress. But I want to spell out the reasons for my bias, not because I think term limits are a burning issue in Washington—they’re not—but because I wish they were less of an issue for ordinary voters. Congress has a lot of problems right now, and term limits are a distraction from the truly hard work that needs to be done.

Term limits supporters believe that bringing in fresh thinking and new leaders on a regular basis will make Congress more representative. However, stripping voters of the right to re-elect a representative whom they’ve supported in the past does not make for a more democratic system; rather, it makes it less.

It also weakens Congress. If you take power away from a senior legislator, that power does not evaporate. Instead, it flows to the bureaucracy and the President. Serving productively in Congress is a tough, exacting task. It demands a deep knowledge of the issues that confront the country, a keen eye, backed by years of experience, for the ways in which executive agencies can go off track, insight into the ways in colleagues might be motivated to shift their positions, and the hard-earned wisdom to forge common ground among competing interests and ideologies.

Kicking members of Congress out of their seats just as they’re gaining the ability to legislate effectively and oversee the government responsibly is tantamount to demoting Congress to the status of a minor agency. Term limits are not the solution to the real dysfunction that besets Washington. They reduce the choices of voters, shift power to the executive branch, and move representative democracy in the wrong direction.

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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Looking forward by looking back 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

 

With the 114th Congress just underway, the political world is focused intently on the road ahead. Taxes, trade, immigration, climate change, job creation, the Affordable Care Act—there’s a long list of issues and one burning question: whether a Republican Congress and a Democratic President can find common ground.

Yet before we get worked up about what’s to come, we need to take a hard look at the Congress that just ended and ask a different question: Why was it such an abject failure?

Let’s start with a basic number. According to the Library of Congress, 296 bills were passed by the 113th Congress and signed by the President. Just for comparison’s sake, the “do-nothing Congress” of 1947-48 got 906 bills through. The Financial Times called this most recent version “the least productive Congress in modern U.S. history.”

Congress failed most spectacularly on the basics. Not one of the dozen annual appropriations bills passed, while the budget resolution, which is supposed to set overall fiscal policy, never even got to a vote.

When Congress did legislate, it did so in the worst possible way—by using an “omnibus” spending bill into which it crammed everything it could manage. Congress’s reliance on omnibus bills, which are written in secret, violates every rule of good legislative process and denies transparency and accountability. It allows Capitol Hill to curry favor with all sorts of special interests and forces—or allows—members to vote for provisions that would have had very little chance of surviving on their own.

The last Congress maintained one other lamentable trend: it took “oversight” to mean injecting its investigations with partisanship—Benghazi, the IRS’s examination of conservative groups, the VA’s mishandling of health care for veterans—while forgetting the crucial, ongoing oversight of government. It allowed itself to be co-opted by the intelligence community, which persuaded Congress to neglect a public debate on massive surveillance, hacked the Senate’s computers, and misled Congress about the nature and extent of torture.

The congressional leadership is now under pressure to show Americans that they can be successful. Let’s hope they consider “success” to include avoiding the bad habits of the past, by paying more attention to their constituents than to special interests; enforcing their own ethics rules more vigorously; and most of all, allowing the full debate and votes Congress needs to serve as a true coequal branch of government.

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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