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How to tell if Congress is working again


By Lee H. Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

There have been encouraging signs that the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill wants to make Congress function again. They’ve talked about using conference committees more, allowing a more open process for rank-and-file members, enacting separate appropriation bills rather than using omnibus bills, and letting committees lead on legislation rather than hoarding all power in the leadership offices. Perhaps most important, they’ve acknowledged that Congress has many bad habits, and insist that they want to restore a healthy legislative process.

This has to be heartening to any American concerned about the level of dysfunction to which Congress had sunk. The question is, how can we tell if Congress is actually fixing itself? For as promising as the rhetoric might be, there’s a long way to go before words and reality meet on Capitol Hill. Here’s what you should keep your eye on:

First, differences in emphasis separate the leaders of the two houses, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. Ryan is intent on pressing forward with key policy proposals that would anchor a bold Republican legislative agenda. But that’s because the Republican majority in the House is not generally believed to be at risk. Over in the Senate, things are different: control of that body next year is up for grabs, and McConnell seems to be focused on maintaining his party’s majority. For his members, boldness is a risk. This difference could lead to slim production.

So look to see how many and which issues the two leaders really push forward. Will they advance the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in some version, or let it slide until the elections are past? Will they tackle tax reform? How about authorizing support for the war against ISIS? Ryan has already removed one key matter—immigration reform—from the table. Will other pressing issues also bite the dust?

The second big indicator is whether Congress has the political will to fix itself. Most members say publicly that they don’t want gridlock and are dedicated to making the institution function smoothly. The key measure of whether they really mean it is the attitude they take toward their political adversaries. If what you hear on Capitol Hill is nothing but distrust, then they’re not serious. If they’re willing to negotiate and compromise with one another—as happened at the end of last year, with the passage of an omnibus spending package — then there’s hope.

Third is what you might think of as the rolled-up-sleeves test. How hard are members of Congress willing to work at addressing the key issues facing the country? So far, the evidence is disappointing. The legislative schedule put out by the congressional leadership is, to be blunt, lax. On average, members of Congress will be working about nine days a month. They’ve given themselves four stretches of ten days off at a time. They’ll be off for 52 straight days in July, August and September, and then another 39 days in a row in October and November. Yes, it’s an election year and they want to campaign. But you cannot run a government that is not in session. The best we can hope for is an obvious sense of urgency when members of Congress are in Washington. Look for it. If you don’t see it, little will get done on Capitol Hill.

I should say that not all the responsibility for restoring Congress rests at the federal level. The states, too, have a key role to play. Will they get serious about how they draw congressional districts, so that politicians no longer have the luxury of picking their voters rather than the other way around? Will some states continue to pursue efforts to make voting harder—which, like gerrymandering, has the effect of shoring up the extremes in Congress? Will states make the effort to modernize their voting systems, so that the democratic process has a chance of working with minimal friction?

In the end, good intentions and fine rhetoric don’t accomplish much. I hope you’ll keep an eye on Congress and cheer for its members to act in accord with their own advice. If they do, Congress will take a giant stride toward improved performance.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. 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. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government,” and share our postings with your friends.

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Sadly, Congress seems okay with being weak 


 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

Not many people outside of Capitol Hill paid attention last month when the congressional leadership released next year’s legislative schedule. Its headline feature is a strikingly long summer recess: half of July and all of August, along with a few spotty weeks of work before the November election. There are plenty of other breaks as well; in all, the House will be in session for less than one-third of the year, and the Senate only a bit longer.

I suppose we could take Congress to task for not working hard enough, and I’m sure plenty of people will do so. But the schedule reveals an even more serious issue: it suggests that Congress, or at least its leadership, is unconcerned about how ineffective and even irrelevant the institution has become when it comes to policy making.

This has been a long-term trend, with plenty of responsibility to be laid at the feet of political leaders in both parties. Even some recent signs of progress, like the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aren’t enough. Many people, within Washington and beyond, now take Congress’s weakened state for granted, almost as if it’s the natural order of things.

That is because wherever you turn, Congress has lost ground as an institution. The contrast with the presidency is especially stark. Every President in recent memory has expanded the power of his office, and for good reason. The modern world demands quick, decisive action, and Americans like presidents who act forcefully. Yet the result is that the balance of power has shifted dangerously toward the President.

This is especially apparent on two fronts where Congress ought to be resolute. One is the budget — the basic blueprint for the government — which is now largely the President’s responsibility. Congress cannot even produce a real budget any more; every year, it kicks the serious fiscal questions down the road — from hard decisions on tax reform to even harder decisions on spending. Its deference to the President is even more striking when it comes to committing U.S. forces overseas. Members of Congress happily criticize the President on issue after issue, lamenting that they cannot trust him and cannot work with him. Yet on some of the most important questions the government faces — whether, how, where, and when to intervene using military force — they defer utterly to the White House.

They do the same with the regulatory agencies. Members love to criticize the EPA, for instance, but rarely put their words into legislative action, and they fail repeatedly to do the kind of routine, painstaking oversight of federal agencies that would help eliminate wasted resources and bureaucratic overreach.

At the same time, they’ve handed economic power to the Federal Reserve. Fifty years ago, the ordinary American who could name the chair of the Fed was rare. Today, it’s hard to pick up a newspaper without reading about Janet Yellen and the Fed’s board of governors. Because Congress has essentially given up on trying to shape fiscal policy, it has put the Fed in charge of keeping the economy growing.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become the principal way our country deals with a host of tough issues like abortion and affirmative action. These are matters that, ideally, would be wrestled through the legislative process. Instead, they’re up to the Court.

Congress these days is failing to assert its responsibilities under the Constitution — it is far from being the co-equal branch our Founders envisioned. And many of its members agree. They don’t believe the institution they serve is doing its job — they’d point, for instance, to immigration reform, which Speaker Paul Ryan recently announced the House would not even touch next year, despite the pressing need. Here is an issue practically begging for rolled-up sleeves on Capitol Hill. Yet instead of action, they get a congressional schedule that sends members back to their districts for most of the year.

Which may be the most distressing part of it all. Instead of being concerned enough about Congress’s weakness and inactivity to take action, its leaders, at least, appear to believe that many of the toughest issues on the national agenda are beyond their capability to resolve.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. 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. “Like” us on Facebook at “Indiana University Center on Representative Government.” 

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Where Congress falls short … and where it doesn’t


V-Lee-Hamilton-web

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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