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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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Congress still isn’t being responsible


 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

Congress is winding down its historically unproductive session with a small flurry of activity. It’s a welcome change, but so long overdue that it can’t possibly make up for what should have been accomplished on Capitol Hill this year. The problem is that for too long, members of Congress have been working hard at everything except the one thing they should have been working hard at: legislating. They’ve been so unproductive that they’ve actually threatened our world standing and our domestic well-being.

To be sure, they are moving incrementally. Gridlock is breached, but not broken. The likelihood is that Congress will pass a defense bill. It reached a small-scale budget agreement that undoes a bit of the damage caused by the sequester. It is finally starting to work through a list as long as your arm of judicial and executive-branch confirmations, but only because Senate Democrats decided they had to change the rules if they wanted to fill long-unfilled government appointments.

Yet, the list of what Congress hasn’t done is sobering. There’s no food-stamp reauthorization or waterways construction bill. It passed a one-month extension to the farm bill, but that falls far short of the certainty this crucial economic sector needs. There’s no lasting solution to the debt-ceiling problem. Almost nothing has been done about the fundamental gap between taxes and spending. It has left unemployment benefits unresolved, immigration reform unresolved, tax reform unresolved, and action on climate change unresolved. This lack of productivity makes me wonder if Congress can address truly hard challenges without a crisis before it.

Mind you, some legislators take pride in how unproductive Congress has been. They argue that the less the government does, the better. But given Congress’s pathetically low standing in the polls, it’s clear that most Americans don’t agree. They don’t like incompetence, as their response to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act suggests, and they really don’t like people who dodge their responsibilities, which is what Congress’s ineffectiveness amounts to. Unlike many members of Congress, Americans seem to understand that things that ought to be done are not getting done, and that there are real costs to inaction.

We’re in a competitive race with China for world leadership, and whether we like it or not, others around the globe are comparing our two governments. The attractiveness of the American model is under challenge, and our political dysfunction is a serious handicap. As the Wall Street Journal put it recently, a superpower that isn’t sure it can fund its government or pay its bills is not in a position to lead. And, because problems aren’t getting addressed, others are stepping into the breach at home, too—but with less transparency, less accountability, and less flexibility.

The Fed is doing the heavy lifting on the economy. The Supreme Court is essentially legislating. Executive branch agencies are trying to handle massively difficult challenges through executive orders. State and local governments have decided that even on issues they can’t truly address effectively, like immigration, they’re on their own.

When asked about all this, congressional leaders tend to blame the other house, arguing that they’ve done their best but the other side has bottled up their efforts. All I can say is, finger-pointing is not an excuse, it’s an admission of failure. A leader’s responsibility is to enact legislation, not just get a bill through the house of Congress he or she controls.

Legislating is tough, demanding work. It requires many hours of conversation about differences, commonalities, and possible solutions. It demands patience, mutual respect, persistence, collegiality, compromise, artful negotiation, and creative leadership, especially when Congress is so divided.

Yet, when Congress meets only episodically throughout the year, when it often works just three days a week and plans an even more relaxed schedule in 2014, when the House and Senate give themselves just one overlapping week this month to resolve huge questions of public policy, you can only come to one conclusion: They’re not really willing to work hard at legislating. A last-minute flurry of bills offers hope, but it’s going to take a lot more work to convince the country that Congress knows how to live up to its responsibilities.

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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November = No food for some Michiganders


By Mona Shand

Michigan residents who receive federal food assistance will see their benefits decrease by the end of this week, even as Congress debates further cuts to the anti-hunger program. Photo courtesy of stockphotosforfree.com.

Michigan residents who receive federal food assistance will see their benefits decrease by the end of this week, even as Congress debates further cuts to the anti-hunger program. Photo courtesy of stockphotosforfree.com.

At the height of the recession, Congress authorized a small increase to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), but that extra funding runs out November 1, leaving many Michigan residents struggling even harder to put food on the table. Beginning next week, a family of four receiving SNAP benefits will see a loss of about $36 per month.

Gilda Jacobs, CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy, declared that this is the wrong time to make any cuts to such a vital anti-hunger program, which serves Michigan’s most vulnerable.

“It goes to seniors, it goes to veterans, it goes to children, it goes to working families—many people who have no other way to get nutrition and healthy foods,” Jacobs said.

N-November-no-food2-plateThe U.S. House has passed a Farm Bill, including even deeper cuts to the SNAP program, which would eliminate 200,000 low-income men and women from food assistance in Michigan. A bipartisan version that passed in the Senate also makes a cut, but it’s quite small compared to the reduction of $40 billion over 10 years in the House bill.

According to Jacobs, the effects of cuts to the SNAP program go far beyond the dinner table in a state like Michigan, which is still struggling to pull itself out of the recession. “These dollars also help our local economies,” she said. “This money is spent directly in people’s neighborhoods. They go into small businesses. So, there’s really a ripple effect.”

Today an estimated 13 percent of Michigan households meet the definition of “food insecure,” meaning they do not consistently have enough food. That’s up from 9 percent just a decade ago.

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How to improve the road ahead


V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

One of the more amazing spectacles in the days after the government shutdown ended was the obsession in Washington with who won and who lost in the showdown. Yes, the capital is focused on next year’s elections, but honestly! There was only one real loser, and that was the American people.
Why? Because nothing got resolved. The agreement leaves the government open only until mid-January, and gives the Treasury the ability to borrow through early February. This is the barest minimum that we needed. So the question is, can we avoid a similar crisis down the road? To do so, Congress must confront three enormous challenges. To begin with, great democracies do not lurch from doomsday moment to doomsday moment. They plan ahead, they resolve their challenges, they fulfill their responsibilities abroad and respond to their own people’s needs. Congress can do none of these things so long as its members respond only to brinksmanship, resolving one crisis by setting up another a few months down the road.

Second, I find myself thinking often these days of the skillful legislators I’ve known over the years. Where are their counterparts today? Congress only works well when politicians and staff understand that each party has to walk away with something; that it’s crucial to preserve flexibility and avoid scorched-earth rhetoric; and that it takes people with the fortitude not to walk away from talks when things are going poorly. Congress needs legislators who are willing to roll up their sleeves and commit fully to the process.

Finally, Congress is weak today. By its inaction, it has given power to the President, who can use executive actions to enact policy. It has strengthened the federal bureaucracy by leaving regulatory decisions to federal agencies with very little direction or oversight. It has given massive economic power to the Federal Reserve, since someone has to promote economic growth. And it has allowed the Supreme Court to become the central policy-making body on controversial issues from campaign finance to affirmative action to environmental regulation.

“Any society that relies on nine unelected judges to resolve the most serious issues of the day is not a functioning democracy,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said in a recent speech. I’m sorry to say that he’s talking about us.

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 you need to know about Congress right now


V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

Deeply unpopular and flagrantly unproductive, Congress is on its August recess right now. It won’t return until Sept. 9, after a five-week recess, leaving itself just a few days to settle issues like raising the debt ceiling and passing a federal budget. Here are some things you should know about where it stands at this stage of the game:

— Few, if any, Congresses can match this one for futility. It managed to help out some communities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and to reach a deal on presidential nominations, but mostly it can’t get things done — whatever your politics. The repeal of Obamacare, action on climate change, a “grand bargain” on our fiscal problems, education and tax reform, creating jobs, strengthening gun laws… the list of dropped balls is long, although there is still hope for immigration reform, if just barely. A few weeks ago Speaker John Boehner told Americans not to judge Congress by how many laws it passes, but by how many it repeals. It hasn’t succeeded on either count.

— The budget process is a mess. It’s been years since Congress put together a budget according to its regular order, but even by its recent low standards this year has been chaotic. None of the appropriations bills needed for the government to continue running after Sept. 30 has been enacted. “It is common for Congress to leave big budget fights until the last minute,” the Wall Street Journal’s Janet Hook wrote as Congress left town, “but the budgeting process now seems so adrift that even congressional veterans find it hard to see a resolution.” Passing a budget is the most basic function of government, and Congress can’t manage it.

— Members of Congress do not like to compromise. The parties are more divided ideologically than they’ve been for many decades, with one side fiercely hostile to government and the other convinced that government can accomplish good things. Neither side can get things done on its own. That’s pretty much the definition of when responsible lawmakers step forward to build a consensus. Yet in this Congress, either they don’t know how or they’re not interested. A glimmer of hope does exist, as more members respond to polls showing Americans believe it’s more important for the parties to compromise than to stick to their positions. They may not be able to come to agreement, but some of them are talking about how willing they are to reach across the aisle.

— Even so, it’s worth noticing that one of the congressional parties is extraordinarily difficult to lead at the moment. The Republicans are fractured and squabbling over their future direction. This makes me sympathize with the formidable task the Republican leadership confronts.

— Hardly anyone out there thinks Congress is doing a good job — it’s consistently below 20 percent approval ratings — and most people think it’s too partisan. Yet members aren’t very concerned. They’ve become quite skilled at running against Washington, even though they are Washington. And they count on the fact that few voters hold their own member of Congress responsible for its shortcomings, however unpopular Congress as a whole has become.

— As lobbyists descend in swarms on Capitol Hill, they hold more power than ever. They rain cash, twist arms, and even draft bills — all the things that powerful congressional leaders used to do. The NRA’s defeat of legislation strengthening background checks for gun purchases, in the face of overwhelming public sentiment after Newtown, was nothing less than an impressive display of political clout and an example of how influential lobbyists and special interests have become. Perhaps this is why a good number of my former colleagues have made a tidy living for themselves by becoming lobbyists.

— Finally, all of this contributes to the emerging themes for the 2014 congressional campaign. Candidates will clearly run against the mess in Washington, and a good number of them, though not all, will talk regularly about the need to be bipartisan. The big question for 2015 will be whether the successful ones can translate their talk into legislation to help move the country forward.

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. Now on Facebook you can find information about our educational resources and programs, and you can 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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A more rounded way to gauge Congress


By Lee H. Hamilton

I suspect that most members of Congress will want to forget the year that just ended.
The institution that symbolizes our democracy finished 2011 plumbing depths of unpopularity it has never experienced before. The poor jobs picture, the lurching from one brink-of-disaster deadline to the next, the polarization that keeps the parties from working together, the widespread sense that Congress is so dysfunctional it cannot meet the nation’s challenges—all played a role.
These are valid ways of judging Congress, but they are not the only way. Every year, the Center on Congress at Indiana University polls a group of congressional scholars on how they think the institution is doing, and one of the challenges we face is devising a set of questions that meaningfully probe Congress’s performance. It’s not as easy as you’d think. You have to look deeply at how Congress is operating in order to get a well-rounded picture.
The first of Congress’s responsibilities is to protect its constitutional role as a strong, coequal branch of government. It must stand apart from and serve as a check upon the excesses of presidential power. So how well does it oversee the executive branch, and is it generating meaningful, politically sustainable policy alternatives, or just sitting back and letting the White House take all the political risks?
Its second great role is to represent the American people. This means making sure that all voices get a fair hearing and that diverse viewpoints play a part in crafting initiatives—all while safeguarding institutional practices that allow legislation to move forward in a timely manner.
Third, in a country as politically and demographically varied as ours, sound process, negotiation and compromise are key to crafting legislation that can enjoy broad political support. Are its leaders capable of working hard to forge a consensus? If they can’t, do conflicts over legislation represent substantive differences, or mere political game-playing? Does it balance careful deliberation with making decisions? Does it protect the rights of the minority and allow all points to be heard?
Fourth, does Congress set sufficiently high standards for its individual members? Do they keep partisanship in check and behave ethically?
And finally, do they maintain strong connections to their constituents back home? Do they make themselves accessible in a variety of settings, listen well, and speak out for their communities and constituents at times of need?
All of these questions add up to how well Congress represents the interests of the American people, and as always, it does better on some than on others. Despite its obvious troubles, the picture is not entirely bleak. And I can’t help but believe that the more well-rounded our understanding of where Congress falls short and where it performs well, the better we can hold it to account.
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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How to fix distrust in government


By Lee H. Hamilton

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll had bad news for Congress, whose support is down to single digits. But it had even worse news for the Republic. Americans’ distrust of government, the pollsters found, is “at its highest level ever.”
When so many Americans believe that their representatives in Washington do not have their best interests in mind, something is desperately off-kilter. It means that Americans feel betrayed by how the political class operates.
So the question becomes what can be done to restore the people’s trust in government. May I suggest it involves more than changing policies. It means paying attention to the values that people would like to see embodied in government.
To start, they want fairness from Washington. I’ve always been impressed by the importance Americans place on fairness; they strive to be fair to those around them, and they expect government to do the same.
They also want government to be open. This is not a blanket pronouncement — where national security and defense are concerned, or where congressional negotiators need space to find common ground without being forced to posture for the cameras, there is a place for secrecy. But transparency ought to be the rule.
There is also a deep thirst for accountability in Washington. So many different people have their hands on promoting or blocking a given initiative, it can seem as though the entire political system is designed to shrug off responsibility. It is hard to respect institutions whose leaders refuse a forthright accounting of, or deny responsibility for, their failures.
Americans do not expect miracles or understate the difficulties of governing. They do not expect a single person to right the ship of state. Quite the contrary. They want a collective effort, a sense that people in government are working together to resolve their differences. Americans tolerate disagreement, but not to the point of gridlock — in the end they prefer cooperation, not confrontation; remedies, not filibusters and scorched-earth politicking.
Finally, they want honesty. Americans really do want to know the scope of the problems they confront and to make up their own minds about them. They resent politicians who paper over the complexity of the problems or toss off inadequate solutions.
Rebuilding trust in American government will require more than changes in rules or policy. It will rest on the manner in which our elected officials conduct the business of government, and their willingness to embrace fairness, openness, accountability, cooperation, competence and honesty.
Lack of trust in government is a far more serious problem than most politicians believe, one that cannot be resolved easily. The solution can only come from a patient, long-term effort to return to our fundamental values and instincts.
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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Congress doesn’t like making hard choices


By Lee H. Hamilton

If you paid attention to the debt-ceiling negotiations in Washington, you may have noticed something interesting. For all the partisan division, there was bipartisan agreement throughout the debate on one point: It’s safest politically to defer hard choices to the last possible moment—and maybe avoid them altogether.
In the negotiations, Democrats and Republicans alike offered proposals that avoided the details of cutting budgets or increasing revenues. They suggested commissions and committees that would make the hard choices for them; they favored caps on spending, without saying how caps would be enforced; they floated the idea that the President could unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, allowing Congress to avoid the entire problem; they favored voting on a balanced-budget amendment, which is a way of telling voters you’re for a balanced budget without actually being held accountable for the spending and taxing choices that produce one.
There’s nothing new here, of course. Politicians love to find creative ways to avoid actually resolving difficult policy questions. Once you make a choice, you inevitably alienate one or more constituencies. Most politicians don’t like to alienate people. So it is not surprising that they love to give you a process answer to questions seeking hard, substantive choices. Process approaches make it look like a member of Congress is taking action when, in fact, he or she is skirting the key questions: Do you cut defense spending? Rein in Medicare spending? How much of the taxpayers’ dollars should the government spend on education, environmental regulation, social welfare?
I don’t suggest that debating procedure, opting for further study, or preserving flexibility are always ill-advised. There’s a place for them. But as a voter, you have both the right and the responsibility to not let political leaders off the hook when they’re avoiding making a choice. If they tell you they fought for a line-item veto or a balanced-budget amendment, ask them specifically what they would cut.
Lawmaking should be about making hard choices. Don’t let our lawmakers avoid them.
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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