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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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Let’s add civility and civic skills to our goals for the year


By Lee H. Hamilton

This is a season of giving, good cheer, and forbearance. Too bad that, with the turn of the year, all those fine sentiments will become just a memory as election season begins in earnest.
Too often in recent decades our politics have been strident, polarized, coarse, even mean.
Incivility directly affects both the quality and the quantity of the hard work of governance. Along with the outright rudeness that often marks our public discourse, it makes it virtually impossible to reconcile opposing views and, therefore, to meet our civic challenges.
So I’d like to suggest that we all, ordinary voter and politician alike, resolve this year to be more civil. Because everyone in this country has a responsibility to foster a civic dialogue that respects the people with whom we disagree, and that advances the interests of the nation.
Knowing how to disagree without obstructing progress is a basic civic skill. The more that ordinary citizens state their case and their principles cogently, in a manner that is substantive, factual, and does not attack the motivation or patriotism of those with whom they disagree, the better our political system will work and the stronger our nation will be. If we know how to do this ourselves and to accept no less from our leaders, then we can change our politics.
In a democracy, it is not enough just to let politicians set the rules of engagement. We all need to know the values that underlie productive civic dialogue: mutual respect and tolerance; the humility to know that sometimes we’re wrong; the honesty to keep deliberations open and straightforward; the resolve to surmount challenges whatever the obstacles; and, of course, the civility that allows us to find common ground despite our disagreements. If we come to value all this, then the politicians who spring from our midst will have to, as well.
It seems a small thing, resolving to be more civil. But it’s not small if we put it into practice — if we get off the sidelines, engage with the issues in front of us both large and small, and learn firsthand a basic appreciation for the hard work of democracy: how to understand many different points of view and forge a consensus behind a course of action that leads towards a solution. It is the actions of many ordinary people rolling up their sleeves and digging into the issues they confront in their neighborhoods and communities that keep this great democratic experiment of ours vital.
This is because every one of us who hones the civic skills needed to renew our politics makes it that much more likely that our nation will thrive. That’s not a bad goal, as we finish out one year and turn toward the future.

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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The Roots of Congress’s Unpopularity


By Lee Hamilton, The Center on Congress at Indiana University

I suppose it’s possible that Congress could enjoy even less popularity than it does at the moment, but it’s difficult to imagine. Recent public opinion polls show it plumbing depths that have rarely been seen before.
Certainly that’s true of a survey just conducted by the Center on Congress at Indiana University, which I direct. Every year, we measure national public opinion about Congress in an effort to gauge how relevant it is to Americans’ lives and whether they feel it’s living up to the Framers’ expectation that it serve as “the people’s branch” of the federal government. This year, a jaw-dropping 84 percent of those we surveyed said they disapprove of the job Congress is doing.
If this were all the survey had found, it would be bad enough. But Americans consistently grade Congress at a D or worse on such fundamental measures as whether it is dealing with key issues facing the country, keeping excessive partisanship in check, holding its members to high ethical standards, and controlling the influence of special interests.
Even worse, when asked, “What do you think is the main thing that influences what members of Congress do in office,” an abysmal 84 percent believe that either “personal interest” or “special interests” drive congressional action. Very few people, in other words, believe that members of Congress have the best interests of the country, or even of their constituents, at heart.
This may be why proposals like the “Congressional Reform Act of 2011,” a set of suggestions for stripping members of Congress of alleged perquisites, have enjoyed such popularity in online forums. Parts of the proposal are based on misleading or outdated information — contrary to the text circulating on the Web, members of Congress do pay Social Security taxes, for instance; and their pensions are generous but not outlandish, averaging $36,732 a year for those who pay into the federal retirement fund that has existed since 1984.
Nonetheless, the perception that members enjoy benefits unavailable to ordinary Americans is widespread, and occasionally right. For instance, while members of Congress participate in a health-insurance program similar to other federal employees mainly for their families, they also have free or very modest cost access to care in the Capitol, including annual physical exams, and to superb outpatient care and other services at military hospitals like Bethesda Naval Hospital.
So congressional reform initiatives that take aim at legitimate issues ought to have a place at the table; especially in tough times, it’s important for Congress not to appear to be getting special breaks at the taxpayer’s expense.
Still, in the end these fixes are not the most important issue.
The more fundamental questions have to do with how Congress behaves. Ordinary citizens believe that members of Congress pay close attention to special interests because, in fact, they do. There’s a widespread belief that Capitol Hill protects its own when it comes to ethical transgressions because there has been far too great a reluctance to pursue misbehavior aggressively.
People are tired of partisan gamesmanship because, quite simply, there’s been too much of it. Voters feel ignored—or at least unheard—because for all the efforts members of Congress put into communicating with their constituents, so much of their time is spent with donors, party activists, and like-minded supporters that the multitude of their constituents’ concerns can go unappreciated, and their legislative duties are neglected.
There are remedies for all of these issues, from beefing up ethics enforcement, to strengthening lobby limits and disclosure laws, to recognizing that partisanship and the narrow political bases that feed it have created a true crisis of confidence in our representative system. Congress has it within its own power to reverse its dangerous fall in the public’s estimation.
But the American people, too, have a role to play. Looking at the shifts in congressional standing over a period of decades, a trio of political scientists — the late Robert Durr of Washington University, John Gilmour of William & Mary, and Christina Wolbrecht of Notre Dame—came to a startling conclusion a number of years ago: that Congress often suffers for doing what it’s supposed to do. “As the representatives of a diverse and heterogeneous country, members seldom find themselves in agreement,” they wrote. “To the public, then, the very activities which characterize Congress and the legislative process—deliberation, debate, and decision making—cause it to appear quarrelsome, unproductive, and controversial, and thus diminish it in the public eye.”
The poll findings by the Center on Congress and others clearly ought to alarm congressional leaders and encourage them to look deeply at their institution’s behavior. But they also should serve as a spur to ordinary citizens not to write Congress off, but to seek to understand it better, take aim at the fundamental problems, and avoid deriding Congress for doing what it was set up to do: debate, deliberate, and make decisions for a diverse and often contentious nation.
Drawing upon his 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee Hamilton writes a bi-weekly column on Congress — sometimes explaining why Congress works the way it does or explaining its impact, other times suggesting ways Congress could be improved or reformed.

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