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Look Up, Americans—it’s not as bad as you think 


V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

We are one glum country.

Trust in the federal government is at historic lows, according to Gallup. More than half of the respondents to an October Rasmussen poll think our best days are behind us. And just a few weeks ago, an NBC/Wall St. Journal poll found that the one thing Americans agree upon, whatever their race or circumstances, is that the system is stacked against people like them.

I have just one thing to say to this: could we all take a deep breath?

We deal with our challenges from a position of strength. We have friendly neighbors to the north and south, oceans to the east and west, and a growing, relatively young population. We possess abundant natural resources, the world’s most capable military force, a nuclear arsenal second to none, and a deterrent power envied by every other country on earth.

We’re doing better economically than any other major industrialized nation, and have put more people back to work since the recovery began than the rest of the industrialized world combined. Our people possess strengths in abundance. We have a remarkable reservoir of talent and a strong entrepreneurial tradition that nurtures inventiveness and draws countless people from abroad eager to make something of their future. Does that sound like a once-great nation on its knees?

I’m not blind to our shortcomings or to the severe challenges we confront. If you read this column regularly, you know that. But in the face of extraordinary difficulties, we adapt, persevere, and eventually emerge stronger. In the end, government may act slowly, and it’s often well behind where you’d wish it to be, but it does act.

All these things give our society a resilience to keep in mind the next time you see a news story or commentary hyping a pessimistic view of our future. We have a long way to go, there’s no doubt about it. But I’m reminded of a young woman a few years ago who asked me, after a bleak speech I’d given laying out the problems of the world, “Is there any hope?” My answer now is the same as it was then: Yes, of course there is.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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What 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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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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There’s an alternative to the Imperial Presidency


V-Lee-Hamilton-webBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

In his State of the Union speech to Congress last month, President Obama drew widespread attention for pledging to use his executive authority to advance his priorities. He insisted he intends to act with or without Congress, and listed well over a dozen actions he plans to take by executive order.

Plenty of people were happy about this. The speech was applauded by pundits who have given up on Congress, and believe the only way to move forward is by strengthening the presidency. The present government is paralyzed, they argue. A stronger presidency would get Washington moving again.

Others are alarmed by this approach. The President, they say, is trampling on the constitutional separation of powers, and grabbing powers for himself that were meant to be shared with Congress.

The problem with this debate is that it’s missing a key part of the equation. Yes, our system needs a strong presidency. But it also needs a strong Congress. We are best off as a nation when the two consult, interact, and work together as powerful branches.

Every president in recent memory has expanded the power of his office and been accused of a power grab. They’ve had plenty of motivation to do so. The modern world demands decisive action. Americans tend to support presidents who act forcefully. Congress is complex and hard to work with.

Yet there are limits to this approach, because in the end there is no substitute for legislation. Executive orders lack the permanence and force of law, so they can be hard to implement and can be cancelled by a later president. They don’t benefit from consensus-building and consultation with voices independent of the President’s.

Consensus-building can’t happen in a vacuum, however. Without a strong Congress able to find its way effectively through the thickets of lawmaking, this President and his successors will surely continue to address the nation’s challenges on their own. The question is, how far down that road can we go before Congress becomes irrelevant, with too much power and too much potential for the abuse of power in presidential hands?

The march toward presidential unilateralism dangerously undercuts our constitutional system. Before we give up on the separation of powers, let’s try strengthening Congress. This may not be the easy route, but if we don’t take it, representative democracy itself is in doubt.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

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Trust … but definitely verify


V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

Of all the numbers thrown at us over the course of last year, one stands out for me. I fervently hope we can avoid repeating it this year. That number is 12. It’s the percentage of Americans in a December Quinnipiac poll who said they trust the government in Washington to do what is right most or all of the time. It’s a depressingly small number, especially compared to the 41 percent who say they “hardly ever” trust the government. On top of that, a few months ago an AP poll found that fewer than a third of Americans trust one another. The poll’s message is clear: our society is in the midst of a crisis in trust.

Trust is essential to our political system and our way of life. The belief that people and institutions will do what they say they will do is the coin of the realm in our society. It is what allows people to work together—in their daily interactions with others and in their communities, legislatures and Congress. Negotiation, compromise, collegiality, and the mechanisms our complex and diverse society depends upon are impossible without trust.

You could argue that we see all around us the results of our trust deficit. Government dysfunction, an economy performing below its potential, public officials’ scandals and misdeeds, trusted institutions’ willingness to skirt the law and standards of good conduct, our social safety net under attack because people mistrust recipients—all of these speak to a society struggling as trust weakens.

Yet here’s the question. Do the polls match your experience? In my case, they do not. Trust is still a big part of my dealings with institutions and individuals, most of whom are good people trying to live a decent life and to be helpful to others. Trust may have weakened, but most of us do not see or experience a corrupt America. A sense of community remains crucially important to make this country safe and secure for ourselves and our children. Events in recent years have given us plenty of reason to be distrustful. Clearly, healthy skepticism is warranted in the wake of the NSA revelations and other evidence of government and corporate misbehavior. In the end, however, “trust but verify” is still the golden standard. Our ability to function and move forward as a society rests on trust. Think about it.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

 

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Congress still isn’t being responsible


 

V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
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How to improve the road ahead


V-Lee-HamiltonBy Lee H. Hamilton

 

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

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

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

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

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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