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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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A very tough job 


 

V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

You know who I feel sorry for? Today’s politicians.

You’ll laugh at this, but hear me out. This is a very tough time to be a politician, whether running for office or trying to lead while holding office. The women and men who’ve undertaken to represent us face circumstances that make campaigning and governing unusually challenging right now.

Not that they’ve ever been easy, at least in my lifetime. Our size, diversity, and multi-layered government structure; the number and complexity of the problems our political leaders face daily; and the divided politics of our time, which make settling on coherent policies especially challenging—all these combine to make being a politician in a representative democracy one of the most demanding jobs around. Several features of the current political landscape, however, give politics a sharper edge and make it far more difficult to navigate.

For starters, our political discourse, from city councils to state legislatures to Congress, is less forgiving than it was a generation ago. Political opponents are no longer just people with whom we happen to disagree; they’re people who need to be shamed into silence. They can’t be trusted, they can’t be negotiated with, they’re self-serving and unpatriotic, and when they’re not incompetent, they’re scheming, ill-informed and ill-intentioned. This rhetoric is not just calculated demonization. The extent to which politicians today genuinely distrust the other side is something new in our politics. It makes progress on the issues of the day extremely complicated.

This is exacerbated by politicians’ awareness that voters have lost confidence in our traditional political leadership and are searching hard for alternatives. You see this in the rise of candidates like Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left, who speak to voters who are looking for someone to express their anger and frustration.

Why are Americans upset, and more willing than usual to rally to outlying candidates? I don’t think there’s any great mystery. For starters, we have a society that is deeply concerned about economic insecurity; as the Pew Research Center reported recently, the American middle class—for decades the stable anchor of economy and society—is in trouble and no longer in the majority. People are moving up, but most are not, and some are moving down. Small wonder that immigration causes so much concern.

You can add to this the fear of terrorism and a deeply unsettled view of the major changes taking place in American society: the rise of big data and its attendant loss of privacy; the migration flows that whittle away at some communities, while causing others to change unrecognizably from month to month; the tensions that diversity, arguments over gender, and racial conflict all produce; the fluid and ever-changing patterns of religious belief and identity that have shaken many communities loose from the institutions that once moored them; the decline of the traditional, objective media. America today is an uneasy place, and we see this reflected in voters’ frustration and pessimism.

With next year’s elections still almost a year away, voters are mostly just looking around. They like candidates who express their anger and resentment, but that’s in part because they’re not measuring candidates by whether they seem fit for the presidency or Congress or the governor’s mansion. Voters are just now starting to hold candidates up to the standards of the offices they seek; as they do, the unsettled political environment in which we find ourselves will grow a bit less uncertain.

But the long-term issues—the fears and uncertainty and the forces driving them–won’t have gone away. Which is why I feel great sympathy for politicians at the moment. The skills we need in our political leaders, like the ability to approach those with whom they disagree with a measure of good will and an openness to negotiation and compromise, are not held in high esteem by the voters or by the loudest voices in their own parties. It’s easy for a politician to pander to anger and frustration. It’s much harder to face a roomful of disparate opinions and forge a consensus behind a solution. Yet that is precisely what many politicians recognize our country needs.

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 educational resources and programs, visit 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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Dysfunction exacts a cost



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By Lee H. Hamilton

Earlier this month, The Economist, the renowned British weekly, ran an editorial advocating an end to the U.S. dollar’s supremacy as the world’s chief currency. The magazine offered several economic motives and one supremely political one. “For how long,” its editors wrote, “will countries be ready to tie their financial systems to America’s fractious and dysfunctional politics?”

I want to be blunt here. Congress’s inaction on a host of important issues — its inability to deal with our problems — is doing real damage to our country. It undermines our ability to lead in the world and causes undue economic and social hardship at home. We are getting a reputation as a nation that cannot deal with many of its problems.

If we’re to get out of this mess, the starting point is to recognize the political reality of divided government. The parties have a right to their own hopes and aspirations, but they also need to take seriously the responsibility to govern. They need to find a way past the unhappiness and anger that are evident in the country at large.

Given the seriousness of our problems and the lack of progress on the policy agenda Congress is supposed to handle, there’s really only one way forward: through negotiation and compromise. This has never been easy—learning to compromise on the issues without compromising one’s own principles—but it’s especially challenging now, when I worry that striking a deal has become a lost art.

Still, certain steps seem obvious. The congressional leadership must let the Congress work its will. Members should be allowed to vote straightforwardly on the major policy issues of the day, without leadership manipulating the process to control the result. The House should reject the Hastert Rule, under which a majority of the majority caucus is required to bring a bill to the floor. And both houses need to stop the outrageous use of huge omnibus bills adopted by short-cutting time-tested regular order procedures.

If Congress does not learn to compromise and negotiate, the country is headed for even deeper trouble than we’re currently in. U.S. world leadership will slip, our ability to deal with economic and social issues at home will deteriorate, and the electorate will become even more embittered. Our future is in Congress’s hands. It would be nice if they recognized it.

Lee Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. He writes regularly about Congress and what individuals can do to make our representative democracy work better. His columns are part of the educational mission of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, where he is director. Visit www.centeroncongress.org or go to Facebook to express your views about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. “Like” them on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University.”

 

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We need both insiders and outsiders in Congress 


 

By Lee H. Hamilton

Members of Congress get categorized in all sorts of ways. They’re liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat; interested in domestic affairs or specialists in foreign policy.

There’s one important category, though, that I never hear discussed: whether a member wants to be an inside player or an outside player. Yet where members fall on the continuum helps to shape the institution of Congress.

Insiders focus on making the institution work. They give fewer speeches on the floor, issue fewer press releases, and spend less time considering how to play the public relations game or how to raise money. Instead, they put in long, tedious hours on developing legislation, attending hearings, listening to experts, exploring policy options, and working on building consensus. They’re the ones who do the necessary work of legislating.

Outsiders pass through the institution of Congress, but many of them are using Congress — and especially the House of Representatives — as a stepping-stone to another office: the Senate, a governorship, the presidency.

On Capitol Hill, these people behave very differently from insiders. They raise money aggressively, put a lot of effort into developing a public persona, and are consumed with public relations. They travel a lot. They churn out press releases and speak on the floor on every topic they can find something to deliver an opinion about. They miss votes more frequently than insiders, and often do not attend committee hearings. They’re often impatient with House and Senate traditions, and are impatient with the democratic process.

I want to be clear that I’m not judging which kind of member is more valuable. I may prefer to spend my time with insiders, but both are needed to make the system work. You have to have members reaching out to the broader public, talking about the big issues and engaging Americans in the issues of the day. And you need people on the inside who are dedicated to resolving those issues by attending to the legislation that will make this possible.

The truth is, Congress wouldn’t work if everyone were an outside player. The process is tedious, and outsiders have little patience for it. Yet if everyone were an insider, the country would be deprived of the dialogue, debate, and sheer spectacle that give Americans a sense of stake and participation in the policy-making process.

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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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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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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Report shows need to rein in Wall Street


_V-LevinBy Sen. Carl Levin

 

Recently my Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held the final hearing I will hold as its chairman and one of the most important. Our hearing, and a 396-page report we issued, examined the involvement of three Wall Street banks in the market for commodities like metal, coal, uranium and energy.

These are not activities that banks typically take on. For decades, our laws restricted banks to traditional banking businesses like taking deposits and making loans, and they were generally barred from commercial businesses like mining coal, warehousing uranium or running power plants. That changed in 1999, when Congress passed a law that weakened that traditional separation of banking and commerce. Our subcommittee spent more than two years examining the impact of those changes, and what we found was worrisome.

While Wall Street’s growing role in physical commodities has been discussed and debated, the scope of this involvement and the potential for abuse have not been widely known.

One problem is that operating things like oil tankers and coal mines exposes banks to immense risks in the event of a natural disaster or a catastrophic accident. A Federal Reserve study we reviewed showed that banks involved in these activities lacked the capital reserves and insurance coverage to cover potential losses. Should catastrophe strike, it could undermine a bank or spark fears that it might fail, which would bring turmoil to the U.S. economy. My colleague on the committee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, noted the enormous expense of the BP Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and asked, “What if BP had been a bank?”

Bank involvement with physical commodities also raises concerns about unfair trading, and in some cases, outright market manipulation. JPMorgan recently paid $410 million to settle charges by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission that it used manipulative bidding schemes at its power plants to elicit $124 million in excessive electricity prices in Michigan and California.

One case study from our report highlights the risks to manufacturers, consumers and markets. In 2010, Goldman Sachs bought a Detroit-area company called Metro International Trade Services LLC, which owns a global network of warehouses certified by the London Metal Exchange, or LME, the world’s largest market for trading metals. Under Goldman’s ownership, Metro mounted an unprecedented effort to dominate the North American market for storing aluminum.

Under the LME’s warehouse rules, no matter how many customers want to remove their metal, the warehouse is only required to ship out a limited amount each day. If customers ask to withdraw more metal than the daily minimum, a line or queue forms, and customers have to wait to take delivery. When Goldman bought the warehouses in 2010, the queue in Detroit was just a few days long. But by this year, it had grown to more than 600 days.

We found that Goldman’s warehouse company made a series of complex agreements with some warehouse customers that made it longer. Goldman would pay the owners of aluminum to put their metal in the queue for withdrawal. When that aluminum reached the head of the queue, it was loaded on trucks, but instead of going to a manufacturer, it was shipped a short distance – sometimes just a few hundred yards – to another Goldman-owned warehouse, and placed back in storage. The effect of these deals was that the queue got longer and longer without actually removing any aluminum from the warehouse system.

The lengthening queue boosted revenue at Goldman’s warehouses – the more metal stored in the warehouses, the more rent and fees. But this merry-go-round also affected aluminum prices by increasing the so-called “premium” that customers must pay to cover logistical costs such as storage. Our report found, and expert witnesses confirmed at our hearing, that Goldman’s warehouse, by making the queue longer and pushing the premium higher, was hurting manufacturers and consumers by making aluminum more expensive.

Expert witnesses also told us that if Goldman could use its warehouse to manipulate the queue, and therefore affect aluminum prices, it could profit by employing trading strategies to take advantage of that power. And in fact, Goldman rapidly increased its own aluminum trading after it bought the warehouse company.

Our report offers a number of ways to address these issues. The Federal Reserve is considering rules that could limit banks’ activities in commodities, and it should do so. We also need stronger rules against improper use of insider information and market manipulation. Until such protections are in place, our manufacturers, our markets and our economy are at risk.

Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and the chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

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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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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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