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Archive | Lee Hamilton Column

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.

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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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Now it’s time to focus on growing the economy

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

Recent economic news has been broadly reassuring. Retail sales are strong, November saw the best job gains in three years, the federal deficit is shrinking, the stock market is robust, and the Fed is expressing enough faith in the economy that an interest rate bump next year is considered a certainty.

Yet the public remains unconvinced. This is partly because perceptions haven’t caught up to reality. For many middle- and lower-class families, economic circumstances have not changed very much.

Strong numbers do, however, offer one unambiguous piece of good news: The pressure on policy makers to focus on near-term or immediate problems has eased, which means they can now focus on the fundamental question of economic growth. As Princeton economist Alan Blinder, political strategist Al From and others have pointed out, now is the time for policy-makers to concentrate on creating the environment in the country for sustained, non-inflationary economic growth.

To begin with, we have a chance to get our fiscal house in order and pursue long-term deficit reduction. This means modernizing entitlement spending and shaping a tax-reform package that focuses on investments to boost productivity and help the economy to grow for everyone. It also means eliminating public subsidies to individual enterprises—that money can better be spent on boosting the economic skills of ordinary Americans through education and training.

There are other steps government policy-makers can take to improve broad economic growth. We need to expand trade through open markets and simplify the regulatory structure so that it protects Americans without burdening companies beyond reason. And we must address our nation’s deferred infrastructure needs, which hinder the smooth functioning of every business that relies on transporting its goods.

The same applies to reforming government itself. A government that does not work well—that wastes money, fails its regulatory responsibilities, and cannot make timely decisions—undermines economic growth. Finally, policy-makers need to remember that economic growth means providing a ladder out of poverty for the truly needy. Providing opportunity for low-income Americans through the Earned Income Tax Credit and programs to upgrade their skills is vital. No one who works full time should be poor in this country.

Free, competitive markets are the best way to deliver goods and services to Americans. Government must not get in the way of that system. Nor should it stand idle. The right response by government to our economic challenges is not to focus on the immediate economic problems of the day, but to invest in economic growth for all.

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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Look Up, Americans—it’s not as bad as you think 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

We are one glum country.

Trust in the federal government is at historic lows, according to Gallup. More than half of the respondents to an October Rasmussen poll think our best days are behind us. And just a few weeks ago, an NBC/Wall St. Journal poll found that the one thing Americans agree upon, whatever their race or circumstances, is that the system is stacked against people like them.

I have just one thing to say to this: could we all take a deep breath?

We deal with our challenges from a position of strength. We have friendly neighbors to the north and south, oceans to the east and west, and a growing, relatively young population. We possess abundant natural resources, the world’s most capable military force, a nuclear arsenal second to none, and a deterrent power envied by every other country on earth.

We’re doing better economically than any other major industrialized nation, and have put more people back to work since the recovery began than the rest of the industrialized world combined. Our people possess strengths in abundance. We have a remarkable reservoir of talent and a strong entrepreneurial tradition that nurtures inventiveness and draws countless people from abroad eager to make something of their future. Does that sound like a once-great nation on its knees?

I’m not blind to our shortcomings or to the severe challenges we confront. If you read this column regularly, you know that. But in the face of extraordinary difficulties, we adapt, persevere, and eventually emerge stronger. In the end, government may act slowly, and it’s often well behind where you’d wish it to be, but it does act.

All these things give our society a resilience to keep in mind the next time you see a news story or commentary hyping a pessimistic view of our future. We have a long way to go, there’s no doubt about it. But I’m reminded of a young woman a few years ago who asked me, after a bleak speech I’d given laying out the problems of the world, “Is there any hope?” My answer now is the same as it was then: Yes, of course there is.

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 lies ahead 

 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

Given all the words and images devoted to the midterm elections over the past few weeks, you’d think the results had told us something vital about the future of the country. In reality, they were just a curtain-raiser. It’s the next few weeks and months that really matter.

The big question, as the old Congress reconvenes and prepares to make way for next year’s version, is whether the two parties will work more closely together to move the country forward or instead lapse back into confrontation and deadlock. I suspect the answer will be a mix: modest progress on a few issues, but no major reforms.

Overall, the deep frustration Americans feel toward Washington will likely continue. Especially since, despite the urgent problems confronting us, the House leadership has announced an astoundingly relaxed 2015 agenda that includes not a single five-day work week, 18 weeks with no votes scheduled, and just one full month in session: January.

Why might there be progress? The President wants to enhance his legacy. More politicians these days seem to prefer governing to posturing. The Republican Party may have won big in the elections, but it still cannot govern alone: it will need Democratic votes in the Senate and the cooperation of the President. And both parties want to demonstrate that they recognize they’re responsible for governing.

This is not to say that progress is inevitable. President Obama has made clear that he believes he must act to halt deportations of illegal immigrants, even if he does so without Congress; congressional Republicans say they consider unilateral action an act of war. Meanwhile, the new Republican Senate is almost certain to give the President’s nominees a hard time; while GOP senators are unlikely to want to appear too tough on Loretta Lynch, the nominee for attorney general, the gloves will almost certainly come off for nominees who must negotiate hearings after her.

In the end, 2015 will see a mix of small steps forward and backward. There’s little chance of a minimum wage increase and it’s unlikely the budget will be passed in an orderly and traditional manner. Similarly, significant and difficult issues like major entitlement and tax reform will prove hard to budge.

On the other hand, Congress can probably manage to avoid a government shutdown, and it faces decent prospects of expanding and protecting our energy boom, promoting fast-track trade authority, and funding key infrastructure needs.

Here’s the basic truth: divided government does not have to be dysfunctional. It can be made to work, and if incremental progress on small issues is the way to get started, then let’s hope Congress and the President pursue that course.

 

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Some Thoughts on Governing 

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By Lee H. Hamilton

 

I have been working in or around government for over 50 years, and if you asked me to boil down what I’ve learned to one sentence, it is this: Governing is much harder work than most people imagine. This doesn’t excuse its lapses or sluggish rate of progress, but it does help explain them.

Why is it so hard? Partly it’s the country we live in. There were 130 million Americans when I was in high school. Now we number over 300 million, with a diversity and cultural complexity that were impossible to imagine when I started out. Finding common ground, meeting complex needs, answering to an overwhelming diversity of interests — this is not work for the faint of heart.

The structure we do this with makes it even tougher. We have governments at the federal, state, and local levels, and they in turn have branches — executive, legislative and judicial — and a cornucopia of massive agencies. To solve a problem you have to navigate a slow, complex, untidy system whose transparency and accountability are always less than they should be.

This is magnified by an American public that, these days especially, wants mutually contradictory things. We want to rein in Wall Street excess, but we don’t support the regulatory structure to do it. We want affordable health care but don’t like Washington’s involvement in the health-care system. We want to shrink the deficit without any cuts in defense spending or entitlements.

Our diversity, complex structure, and difficulty settling on coherent policies make the hardest part of governing even harder. Building a consensus is the most important and most difficult part of political leadership. If politics is ultimately about the search for a remedy — I know, for many politicians it’s about ego or power or money, but I’m interested in the ideal — then you have to be able to get a consensus around that remedy. You need a majority in the U.S. House, 60 votes in the Senate, and the President’s approval. This country cannot be governed without compromise, dialogue and accommodation, and it comes apart at the seams when we go too long without them.

We often have disagreements in politics, but good politicians know that we have no choice but to work through them. The best want to bring different groups of people together, not pull them apart. They understand that not all the good ideas come from one source, and they reject the idea of constant conflict and permanent gridlock. In a divided country with a government specifically set up to divide powers, we need to follow this process — not because we want to but because we have to.

They know, too, that you have to treat every person with dignity and respect, even though the clashes may be hard. I used to watch Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill engage in tough, hard-hitting dialogue over the issues of the day, but for both of them the underlying premise was that they had to reach an agreement and move ahead. They knew civility had to be the rule — and always ended by trying to top each other with a good Irish story, doing their best to leave everyone in the room in an upbeat frame of mind.

Don’t get me wrong. The clash of ideas is important. In a dynamic system, with competing power centers and a panoply of interests trying to use their power to achieve their objectives, better policy — a policy that more nearly reflects the will of the American people — can emerge from this debate. Playing one side against the other, or merely stating the problem in order to rile up listeners — these are easy. Moving ahead to reach a solution: that’s the hard part.

Which is why our system works so slowly. It’s unwieldy, messy, and often very noisy, but most of the time, it gets there.

Yet there are no guarantees. Our system is not self-perpetuating. There is no automatic pilot. The question Abraham Lincoln asked at Gettysburg 151 years ago is as fresh today as it was then: Can a nation so conceived and so dedicated long endure? We’re still finding out, but we know one thing: It will take hard work.

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 share your thoughts 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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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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