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To improve, Congress needs to look inward


Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

There are a lot of reasons why Congress finds itself hamstrung in Washington and discounted by the people it serves at home. But in the end, the demons Congress has to fight are its own. If it is to return to relevance, effectiveness, and higher standing in public opinion, the paths it must follow start on and wind through Capitol Hill.

For starters, Congress has gotten into some terrible legislative habits. The worst is the omnibus bill, which is emblematic of the deeply rooted issues Congress faces. These bills are thousands of pages long and they bypass pretty much the entire legislative process.

Good process is not about efficiency. It’s about bolstering your chances of getting things right. And that means handing authority back to individual members and to the committees so that what comes out of Congress can benefit from the creativity and insights of a wide range of talented politicians.

This step, however, requires another: Congress has to spend more time legislating. Its members work very hard, but not at legislating. Yet if the political and legislative process is a search for remedies to our nation’s problems, then it needs care and attention. Building expertise and finding consensus—even within one’s own party—takes patience, skill, perseverance…and a lot of time.

And honestly, if members of Congress can’t make the time to re-energize the practice of negotiation and compromise, then what hope is there? The definition of being a responsible lawmaker is to deal with divisions and to move the country forward anyway. Otherwise, each side just sits in its corner and maneuvers to beat the other at the next election and we, as a nation, spin in circles.

Finally, Congress needs to spend far more of its energy looking over the executive branch. The current hearings on the Mueller report highlight what’s been lacking: this kind of attention should be paid to every nook and cranny of government.

The point of all this is that without a functional Congress, we don’t have a functional representative democracy. I don’t expect all these things I’ve mentioned to be resolved easily or quickly. But I want to see Congress again become an institution we can be confident is playing a constructive role in our democracy. And until it gets its house in order, I don’t see how that will happen.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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What would make Congress better?


By Lee H. Hamilton, former Congressman

Lee Hamilton

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking to a group of students and decided to start with a point-blank question: Is Congress doing a good job? There were perhaps 100 people in the room, and not a single one raised his or her hand.

So I asked the question a different way: Is Congress nearly or completely dysfunctional? Most hands went up.

These were not experts, of course. They were simply reflecting a broad public consensus that things are not working well on Capitol Hill. But they weren’t wrong, either. Things aren’t working well on Capitol Hill.

I can tick off the problems, and so can you. Congress doesn’t follow good process. It seems to have lost the ability to legislate. It’s too polarized and partisan. It’s dominated by political gameplaying, and by the undue influence of money. It defers too readily to the president. Routine matters get bottled up. Its output is low, and it simply cannot pass a budget on time.

“What are the paths that will lead Congress back to relevance, effectiveness, and higher standing in public opinion?”—Lee Hamilton

In fact, there’s a lot it can’t get done: It can’t repair or replace Obamacare, it can’t take action on climate change, it can’t find its way to the grand bargain on fiscal reform that everyone wants, it can’t develop an education policy, it’s unable to address our cyber-security needs, strengthen gun laws, or mitigate extreme inequality.

To be sure, there are things that members of Congress do pretty well. They serve their constituents and are superb at reflecting their constituents’ views. Most are accessible, they understand what their constituents want, they’re adept at aligning themselves with their home districts or states and equally skilled at separating themselves from Congress as a whole. They know how to make themselves look good and the institution they serve look bad.

They’re also people of integrity and talent who want to advance the national interest as they understand it. They’re willing to work exhausting hours in an agitated, dysfunctional political environment. It’s frustrating to look out over Congress and see so many talented, well-meaning people who struggle to make the institution work well.

So what should they do, then? What are the paths that will lead Congress back to relevance, effectiveness, and higher standing in public opinion?

First, it needs to step up to its constitutional responsibilities. The Founders placed Congress first in the Constitution for a reason: it’s not just a co-equal branch, it’s the branch that most thoroughly represents the will and desires of the American people. Yet over the years Congress has kept ceding power to the president.

The Constitution explicitly gives Congress the power to declare war, yet military intervention is now the president’s choice. Congress — and the House specifically — is supposed to take the initiative in producing a budget, but it’s been many years since it exercised that power. Instead, the president submits a budget and Congress reacts.

Up and down the line, in fact, the president sets the agenda and then Congress responds to his proposals. It’s pretty hard to identify a congressional initiative within recent memory.

And it doesn’t just defer to the president. Congress leaves regulatory decisions to federal agencies, with very little oversight. It yields economic power to the Federal Reserve. It’s allowed the Supreme Court to become a central policy-making body on issues from campaign finance to affirmative action to environmental regulation.

And though recent stirrings of independence among both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are heartening, they’re just that: stirrings. It hasn’t come close to being a co-equal branch of government for a long time. So the first step toward reforming itself is to determine to become one.

In order to do so, however, it needs to attend to some serious internal housekeeping, from rehabilitating the way it goes about legislating to restoring the bedrock principles of good legislating, including negotiation and compromise. In my next commentary, I’ll address those needs in greater detail.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.


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Who voted for the Health Care Bill


 

AARP opposes act it calls an ‘age tax’ on older Americans

AARP – June 2017

The U.S. House of Representatives on May 4, 2017 passed the American Health Care Act by a razor-thin margin: 217 to 213. It includes an “age tax” that AARP says would add as much as $13,000 to the cost of insurance for those 50 to 64, and would discriminate against people with preexisting health conditions such as cancer and diabetes. What’s more, we believe it would cause millions of Americans to lose coverage and put Medicare in worse financial shape, according to AARP.

That’s just a partial list of what we believe is wrong with the legislation, which is now under Senate consideration. AARP promised to hold members of Congress accountable if they voted for this bill.

Here they are for the state of Michigan:

MI-1 Jack Bergman

MI-2 Bill Huizenga

MI-3 Justin Amash

MI-4 John Moolenaar

MI-6 Fred Upton

MI-7 Tim Walberg

MI-8 Mike Bishop

MI-10 Paul Mitchell

MI-11 Dave Trott

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Prepare for Earth Day April 22


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Celebrate Earth Day and be active in nature to renew your spirit and strengthen family relationships. Having healthy nature niches for wildlife and us to live protects our families and future. Recognize the importance of science-based evidence to protect the fish and wildlife we eat, water we drink from home water taps, and crops that come from farm fields to sustain our physical and mental health. They provide a sustainable future.

Conservation organizations are appalled with current efforts to undo or weaken environmental protections that protect groundwater from things like PFAS, mining practices that allow waste to again be dumped directly into rivers where it was stopped, and the release of air pollutants because protections are thought to be unnecessary. The President is championing deregulation of environmental protection and has elected supporters in Congress. Many elected leaders do not understand the relevance of John Muir’s journal entry from July 27, 1869. Muir wrote “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” 

Dave Straus states and asks: “My Nature Conservancy colleagues and I believe we have a responsibility to stand up for just how critical science is at this make-or-break moment for our Earth. With our 600 scientists on the ground around the world, now is the time to champion cutting edge, evidence-based conservation.

Science matters—especially at this critical time for nature. On April 14, The Nature Conservancy will participate in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., to join with concerned people from across the country in speaking out for the importance of science.

That’s why I’m marching. And it’s why I hope you’ll be with us in spirit—even if you can’t be there in person. As someone who’s shown your commitment to protecting nature, you know that we have a shrinking window of time left to put our planet on the path to a more hopeful future.

Show that you agree that science is key to safeguarding the air we breathe, the water we drink, the safety of the places we love and the places we call home.” The Nature Conservancy web site is www.nature.org.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, President, Defenders of Wildlife sent me this message. “If the Trump administration gets its wall built, it will leave wildlife and communities broken apart at the border. The biologically rich lands and waters that make up our southern border with Mexico would be irretrievably damaged.

This nightmare is quickly getting closer to reality. In fact, Congress just approved more than $1 billion for the wall that could forever divide species and tear apart wolf packs as well as human families. Ultimately, it could be the end of the road for critically endangered species like Mexican gray wolves, jaguars and ocelots. 

But Defenders won’t let the administration or Congress steamroll wildlife without a fight. We have already filed a lawsuit challenging the wall’s construction and Defenders’ of Wildlife legal team is preparing to take this battle all the way to the Supreme Court.” Defenders Of Wildlife web site is: defenders.org.

It was stated the entire wall will cost $20 billion and this does not include the cost of the National Guard standing at the border. It is my thought, $20 billion could be used to protect our nation’s economy, physical/social health, and environmental sustainability more effectively. It would not divide and isolate critical habitat and prevent access to water of the Rio Grande for wildlife or prevent movement essential for population maintenance. 

I am a member of the North American Butterfly Association. We own property adjacent to the border that is being taken without due process of law under orders from the President. Our property ranks with areas having the highest butterfly biodiversity in the United States. It is being taken and wall construction has begun. NABA has filed suit to protect our private property. This administration exempted our property rights from due process of law and has begun illegal construction on our property. Trump and supporters do not want the Endangered Species Act or pollution regulations to interfere with their desires. This is a critical Earth Day for action.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Enhancing community health


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Nick Sanchez, our district forester with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is sharing a cost-effective incentive to help protect our health, stream health, ground water, and air quality. A healthy community depends on people caring for themselves, neighbors, and community. The program available was included in the Farm Bill in 2014 that Congress approved.

Nick states, “Trees have many benefits. They provide food and a home for wildlife, and even help keep your family happy and healthy! Did you know that trees filter dirty water and keep our topsoil from washing away? Trees also help store water underground, preventing flooding in the spring and low levels during summer drought. Even the shade from trees provides a benefit, keeping streams clear and cold, ideal for fish like trout! Planting trees along a stream provides big benefits and we want to help you keep our home rivers clean and healthy for your family, fish, and other cool wildlife!” 

He would like community members and farmers know about the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. A representative from the Rogue River Partners came to Ody Brook to enlist my advice for protecting the quality of the local environment for the benefit of people and wildlife. 

Nick would like all to know, “Conservation partners have teamed up to bring farmers and forestland owners access to a unique pool of funding to help them take actions on their land to help prevent soil loss, and to create and improve fish and wildlife habitat in the Rogue River and Indian Mill Creek watersheds, a 250 square mile area in northern and western Kent County. Financial assistance is available now to help you plant: filter strips, grassed waterways, cover crops, and riparian forest buffers, as well as many other options to help in this effort. This special opportunity is available through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) over the next four years. Call Matt Soehnel, NRCS District Conservationist, at (616) 942-4111 ext. 3 for more information!” Programs are available for others besides farmers. Give Matt a call to learn how NRCS can help you be a good land steward in your neighborhood. 

I receive requests asking me to address the PFAS groundwater issue, the water mining issue impacts on wells and wetlands, and other pressing issues. I could write an article a week on issues for the entire year. Environmental quality for our lives depends on sound science-based data being scrubbed from the EPA website. Information is being censored to downplay the impact of human caused climate change that is degrading the environment. The long-term cost of anti-environmental policies threaten a sustainable economy, our health, and future generations. Scientific data supported by decades of research is not “fake news.” 

I encourage people living in the Rogue River Watershed to take positive action locally to enhance the health of the environment that supports our physical and financial health. First contact the NRCS at the number listed above to learn what you can do on your property and in the community to enhance the health of our neighborhoods. Second contact your US Representative and Senators to protect environmental laws established in the 1970s that are currently on the chopping block. They protect a sustainable economy and our health. Both actions are important for your family. The current administration is working to remove Water, Air, Endangered species, and Wilderness Act protections. Such actions will allow a return to things like PFAS dumping that was stopped decades ago. Things like the PFAS contamination that occurred prior to the federal environmental protection acts could result again if laws are dismantled.

It is less expensive to protect the environment that supports our livelihoods and health than to try to clean it up after we discover it is injuring our health, killing people, and causing economic hardship such as lowering home and property values. Contaminated fish and wildlife affects their health. It makes them dangerous for us to eat.

Nature niche health for fish, bees, birds, and mammals ensures healthy conditions for people. The triple bottom line of economic, social, and environment stewardship protects your family’s future. 

 Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Congress tanks—but does it care?


 

Lee Hamilton

By Lee Hamilton

We’re at a watershed moment in American political history. Our Congress — I’m talking about the people’s body, the institution created by our founders, and not just the men and women who currently inhabit it — is in deep trouble. And no one seems to be offering hope.

Its public standing is abysmal, occasionally dropping into the single digits in polling. Very few people seem to respect it, even on Capitol Hill. Small surprise, as the Pew Research Center reported the other day, that “More members of the U.S. House of Representatives are choosing not to seek re-election to that body than at any time in the past quarter-century.” Since filing deadlines haven’t passed in most states that number is almost certain to grow.

Just as worrisome, power is shifting decisively to the President. The “balance of power” you read about in 7th-grade civics? It’s a myth today. Co-equal branches? Not any more. Members of Congress over the years have delegated much of their power to other branches, especially the executive, so that they can escape accountability for tough choices. It allows them to focus more on getting re-elected, and on the local and constituent interests that are their electoral bread and butter.

Here’s what may be the most discouraging thing of all: there was a time when congressional leaders would forcefully defend the Congress. They don’t even bother to do that any more. In fact, it’s not unusual to find them defending their own leadership but criticizing the institution they lead.

To ponder what we can do about it is to confront a long list of daunting challenges. For starters, congressional leaders have abandoned two centuries of precedent, a traditional set of norms, customs and procedures that allowed a body representing the complexities of the entire country to arrive at policy solutions that by and large spoke to the public good.

Today, bills are often drafted outside the committee system, without careful deliberation, consideration, or even participation by most members. The leadership has accumulated more and more power, leaving ordinary members out of the loop, especially in the all-important budget process.

We’re saddled with a Congress that affords special interest groups far too much power. Their representatives and lobbyists swarm over Capitol Hill to influence and cajole, write speeches, supply talking points, and funnel money and favors of all descriptions to members. And because re-election is so expensive, Congress not only accepts all this, but seeks it out. Ordinary citizens have lost influence in the process.

The body itself has become extremely polarized, which means that the decisions it makes are more extreme. House districts are gerrymandered, which has increased the tendency for them to elect the most extreme candidates in both parties, which only accentuates polarized views when these legislators arrive in Washington.

And Congress has largely rejected its oversight responsibilities, which ought to carry a weight equal to legislating — and which put it on a par with the executive branch. It uses the subpoena power rarely, grills administration and other witnesses only occasionally, and even more rarely holds the executive branch accountable. Want an example? We’ve got half a dozen conflicts going on around the world, armed forces in some 70 countries, we’re incurring casualties and putting our men and women in extreme danger — and Congress holds no hearings of any consequence to ask what’s going on or what we’re gaining from the commitments we’ve made around the world.

You can take the agenda for reform from this depressing litany. Congressional leaders need to stop manipulating the process and let members vote on the tough issues of the day. Finding ways to stem the tidal wave of money and favors is crucial. So are ending gerrymandering and tamping down the politics of polarization. Congress needs to reassert the authority given it by the Constitution to serve as a check on executive overreach and misguided policy-making.

Americans have a right to be disappointed in the performance of the legislative branch. But they also have an obligation to speak up about it and demand action not just on a favored bill, but on improving the effectiveness of the Congress itself.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU 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.

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Congress needs to reassert itself on use of force 


Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton

The Trump Administration, like its predecessors, has shown an apparent appetite for the use of force overseas. The “mother of all bombs” dropped on Syrian troops, saber-rattling toward North Korea, proposed deployments of U.S. forces in 10 or more countries — all of this suggests a growing comfort with the idea of putting our troops in dangerous places.

But the decision to send troops overseas requires clear eyes, hard questions and specific answers. If we are sending our military abroad, our objectives and exit strategies need to be nailed down. Are we engaging in nation- or empire-building? Do we risk being locked into protracted, unending conflicts? Are we inflating the dangers to our national security, as when we falsely asserted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction?

And when we do intervene, are we avoiding or increasing the suffering of the local people whom we’re trying to help? No use of force should go forward without reciprocity — that is to say, capable, committed local leaders who fight corruption and try to provide good governance and protect the values we cherish and promote.

The use of force ultimately comes down to the president — or the president and his top advisors — making the decision. Too often this happens without sufficient dialogue, consultation, or robust debate beyond the White House. In particular, the people who have to do the fighting and bear the costs need to have a major voice in the use of force, and the best way to ensure that is with the involvement of the Congress, along with the media, courts, civil society, and even the international community.

There are obviously cases where the president needs flexibility. But if we’re to put our troops in harm’s way, he also needs independent advice and to answer tough questions. I don’t see any alternative but the strict, robust and sustained involvement of the Congress.

Deciding on the use of force is the most grave and consequential decision government makes. It is of such import that it should not be made by the president alone, but should be shared with the Congress. Presidents should not get broad authority to use force without limit on geography, objectives, or types of forces. The Founding Fathers had it right: the president is commander in chief; Congress has the authority to declare war. Power over the use of force needs to be shared.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU 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.

 

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Amash talks partisanship, Syria, healthcare


N-Amash1

N-Amash-pullquoteBy Judy Reed

U.S. Rep. Justin Amash told the crowd at Cedar Springs High School Monday night, April 10, that the partisanship in Washington is the worst he’s ever seen, and that the leadership doesn’t seem to be interested in breaking the gridlock.

“I’ve always said that we need to work with each other, have honest debate, and let things fall where they may. The only way you fix it is by choosing a speaker of the house who is non-partisan. It takes tremendous will, and I haven’t seen that with this or the previous speaker,” remarked Amash.

N-Amash2The town hall meeting was the first of several that Amash is holding throughout the district over the next week.

He explained that the only things that go to the floor for a vote are the things that the leadership wants, things that have no chance of passing, or things too mild to affect anything. “We either need a change in direction from this speaker, or we need a new one,” he said.

Amash is a firm believer in the principles of the Constitution. He is known for not only standing up for those principles, but also for not mincing words when it comes to politicians he feels are violating them, such as President Trump. That was the case with the President’s recent strikes on Syria.

“The process was not right,” said Amash. “He risked escalating the situation. The framers of the Constitution gave to Congress the power to declare war because we are the closest to the people. I’m here holding the town hall meeting, not Donald Trump. With war, I might be sending your son or daughter off to be killed. To think you can launch a missile strike with no consequence is naïve.”

Amash explained that the War Powers Resolution is often used to justify one-off strikes. Those cases are supposed to only happen when the U.S. itself has been attacked. It says: “The President’s powers as Commander in Chief are exercised only pursuant to a declaration of war, specific statutory authorization from Congress, or a national emergency created by an attack upon the United States” (50 USC Sec. 1541).

“It did not give the president the authority to do what he did,” noted Amash. “There are times we want him to act quickly. But it’s not for offensive acts against another government.”

Amash said the framers of the Constitution left it up to the people to decide whether they want war, and the president then conducts the war.

He did say he thought they should continue to go after ISIS, but that they should update the 2001 mission and goal, and have more debate about it in Congress. “I don’t think you can have perpetual war; it’s dangerous,” he said.

Amash also talked about why he didn’t support the failed Republican proposal on healthcare. “It didn’t repeal the ACA, just tweaked it,” he explained. “The ACA is not functioning the way we’d like it to function. Premiums are going up for a lot of people. It helps many, but also hurts many. We need to start over, in a bipartisan way. The Republican proposal just restructures it, and tweaks can make it worse. It left the sickest and most vulnerable at risk.”

He said that there is no reason to rush it. “We want to make sure we get it right. They just wanted to get it done quickly. It was just a political plan. I’m part of the Freedom Caucus, and I’m sure you heard that we caused it to fail. It’s not true. There were more Republicans going to vote against it than were part of the Freedom Caucus.” Amash said that 50-80 Republicans would have voted against the bill. “It would have been actually very embarrassing, and that’s why they pulled it,” Amash said.

After the failure of the bill, an aide to President Trump called Amash a liability over Twitter and urged Trump supporters to vote for a different Republican candidate in 2018.

But Amash isn’t letting that sway him. “We should’ve worked with the Democrats on it. It needs to be bipartisan. We need buy-in. I still believe the best system is to let states regulate health care. They have different people, different demographics. Allow them to try out a variety of ways. There would be more alternatives, more choices, and would cause the least amount of tension. If you didn’t like it, you could move to another state. I think it would be easier to move out of state than out of the country,” he said, which brought a chuckle from the crowd.

Amash touched on several other topics including immigration, Internet privacy, education, the presidential transparency act, and more, and answered questions for two hours. He also encouraged residents to let him know their feelings on possible war with Syria, and to reach out to his office if they have problems, such as veterans getting assistance, immigration issues, and other concerns.

You can contact the Grand Rapids office at (616) 451-8383 or send physical mail to 110 Michigan St NW, Suite 460, Grand Rapids, MI 49503. You can also email him through his website. Visit https://amash.house.gov/contact-me.

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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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