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Tag Archive | "Capitol Hill"

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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A Fix for Congress must run deep


By Lee H. Hamilton

There were plenty of reasons to be somber as we marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks recently. Honoring the lives lost and communities shattered on that day were foremost among them. But for many of us, there was also the worrying realization that Americans believe we are adrift, saddled with an ineffective political system.
Congress, in particular, has lost the faith of its constituents. According to a mid-August Gallup poll, its approval rate stands at an abysmal 13 percent, while public disapproval has reached a historic high of 84 percent. To borrow a term from the housing meltdown, Congress is deep underwater.
It has been years since Congress acted as if it took seriously its responsibility to make the country work. It could start by addressing the filibuster rule, which effectively requires 60 votes in the Senate in order to move most legislation, a formidable hurdle in a closely divided Senate.
The country also needs more robust congressional oversight into every nook and cranny of government, and a vigorous ethics system which enforces the basic rule that every member act in such a manner as to reflect credit on the institution. A Congress seriously interested in effectiveness would pursue procedural fixes to reduce the excessive partisanship that too often paralyzes Capitol Hill.
These “process” solutions only skirt a deeper problem, though. Our Founders envisioned Congress as a co-equal branch of government, with the elevated standing both to critique and to form a partnership with the executive in making this nation strong and effective. Congress needs to live up to that constitutional role.
The noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once wrote that at heart, politics is about “the search for remedy” — finding a way to fix the problems that beset us. None of our challenges — not the debt ceiling, not the economy, not our entanglements overseas or our growing inequalities back home – are insurmountable. But they do require politics at its best: an honest effort to find remedies that are fair and lasting.
This requires reconciling the manifold needs and interests of an extraordinarily diverse people. Despite all that unites us, we are also divided by differences in philosophy, background, and community. Congress is where those differences come together, which is often why debate there is — and should be — long and contentious. But diversity only explains conflict; it’s not an excuse for failing to overcome it. We need more members who reflect the diversity of this great and varied country yet work to bring it together, not tear it asunder.
Congress can live up to the faith our Constitution and our democracy place in it; but we, as Americans, have to insist that the people we elect to it make this a priority. Congress has to want to change, and we as voters have a major role to play in helping to bring that about.
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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