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Tag Archive | "Lee H. Hamilton"

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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American politics’ great divide


By Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative and Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government

One of the more striking political developments of the last few years has been the partisan sorting of American voters. It used to be that both the Republican and Democratic parties covered some ideological ground. Now, it’s so habitual for conservatives to make their home in the GOP and liberals in the Democratic Party, that party and ideological labels stand in for one another.

Still, you have to be careful. Because when you’re talking about something as complex as Americans’ political beliefs, there’s really no such thing as uniformity.

I often run into conservatives who support liberal positions on one issue or another, and vice versa. It’s very easy for political elites to overstate the degree to which ideological categories actually apply to real people.

True, the divisions that separate liberals and conservatives are real. On social issues, many find themselves sharply divided: over same-sex relationships, the place of marriage and family in our society, and, of course, abortion. This last may be the most divisive issue of all.

And they are sharply divided over the role of government and government intervention in the lives of Americans on economic matters. This is in part a conflict over welfare and the degree to which government should be involved in programs to alleviate poverty or to protect working people from the bumps, bruises, and hardships dealt out by the national economy.

Yet even here, the divisions are not as sharp as they used to be. Over and over, I’m reminded that learning a voter’s views on one issue could tell you next to nothing about his or her views on others, or may actually mislead you.

It’s pretty common these days to bemoan the ideological divisions evident in our politics, especially when the differences are weaponized for partisan purposes. But I’d argue that far from being debilitating, the political debate they give rise to is a sign of the vigor of the political system.

Sure, trying to deal with deep-seated differences is extremely difficult for a politician. But it’s also part of the attraction and the challenge of politics. And if you see voters as the complex opinion-holders they really are, common ground may not be as impossible to find as it can seem at first glance.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar of the IU Hamilton Lugar 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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The Coin of the realm


By Lee H. Hamilton

Debate in Congress has always been contentious. The levels of vitriol may seem especially acute these days, but confrontation is not new. I can remember times on Capitol Hill when “debate” was actually more of a screaming match than a civil discussion.

Back then, we had a colleague who invariably stepped forward at these times to remind each side that if we wanted to get anything done—rather than just shout at each other for the cameras—we had to have a measure of trust in one another. We used to call this his “Trust is the coin of the realm speech.” And though we joked about it, we appreciated it—because he was right.

Representative government depends on trust. It depends on trust among policy-makers in Congress, even when they don’t agree with one another. It depends on popular trust in the people who make decisions on Capitol Hill and in the White House. It depends on trust in those who are charged with implementing those laws. And it requires trust in the institutions in which those decisions are produced and implemented.

We might have joked about my long-ago colleague’s speech, but trust really is the coin of the realm. It is a bedrock requirement of democratic governance. If there’s nothing but cynicism, deep suspicion, and lack of confidence in the system, it cannot work.

To understand how interwoven trust must be within the system, think about it from the point of view of ordinary citizens. We have to believe that our voices will be heard, listened to, and taken into consideration in the halls of power.

This means that those in power must be accountable, and that the institutions they serve in will function in predictable, rule-based ways. Which is why it is so damaging when government acts in ways that diminish trust.

If you feel that government is just helping corporations and rich people, you lose confidence in the system. If people see a government that tolerates a high degree of economic inequality in the country, and great disparities in opportunities between rich people and middle-class people, they no longer trust that system.

Yet for representative democracy to work, public officials, politicians and policy makers have to have a sufficient level of support from ordinary people. You and I have to believe that our representatives will in fact level with us rather than present half-truths and distortions, and will act in our interests. Similarly, for government to have any standing in our lives, we have to have confidence in the experts, technocrats, and frontline staff who make the system work.

This means, in turn, that government has to be able to deliver the goods, the services, the protections that people expect. So the performance of the government—its efficiency and effectiveness—is fundamental to the success of representative democracy.

It’s the same with our elected representatives. If they can’t show they’re able to function according to the rules, traditions and norms that we expect, if they are unable to demonstrate durability in the face of adversity, if they are unable to acknowledge the facts, if they cannot rise above division and gridlock and negotiate to get things done, then we lose faith. This may explain why so many have become suspicious not just of our government, but of one another.

 

Ironically, one cure for this lack of trust is more exposure to the system, through engagement and participation in politics or in civic life. If people are regular participants in political parties, clubs, organizations, or associations of all kinds in their communities, they are much more likely to carry some level of trust in government. And to the extent they don’t do these things, public life seems more distant and less trustworthy.

There is no doubt that my colleague was right. If the various levels of government don’t enjoy the trust of the people, if within each level the participants don’t trust one another, then representative democracy doesn’t work.

This is why the low levels of trust we see in the United States today are so worrisome. How far down this road can we go before we lose the ability to function effectively as a democracy?

 

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