Lee Hamilton: Some suggestions for improving Congress

Whether they’re in the majority or in the minority, members of Congress need to accept responsibility for resolving the nation’s challenges. No more treating the other side as an enemy, to be defeated and humiliated. Instead, adversaries must work together to build consensus based on facts.

Lee Hamilton

Lee Hamilton

A few weeks ago, the survey firm Public Policy Polling made headlines when it released a poll comparing Congress’s standing to a variety of unloved things. Respondents did prefer our national legislature to the ebola virus, but otherwise the news was grim: Americans, the survey suggested, have a lower opinion of Congress than of head lice, Genghis Khan, used-car salesmen, and root canals.

I’ll admit it: I chuckled, though I don’t really agree. Having experienced both, I put Congress well ahead of root canals.

Still, in the years since I left Capitol Hill my frustration with the institution I admired and loved has grown; watching it now is painful. Congress has shown a dispiriting unwillingness to reckon with tax reform, rein in the deficit, find ways to spur economic growth or make any of the other tough decisions that face it. When it does make a decision, it tends to limit its reach — thus, over and over, avoiding the real issues.

Its constant partisanship, lack of urgency in the face of looming fiscal threats, posturing and finger-pointing even at moments when the national interest clearly demands a resolution — all these have made it appear uninterested in actually governing.

Yet people do not run for Congress so they can become unpopular. They don’t go to Washington because they want to accomplish nothing. They don’t take the oath of office, surrounded by reminders of the distinguished men and women who came before them, just to disavow Congress’s rich history of accomplishment.

Rather, they get caught in a destructive cycle whose dynamics are often shaped by political forces out of their control — by the demands of party loyalty or the arm-twisting of caucus leaders, by the threats and blandishments of special interests or the fear of well-funded opposition in the next primary. The challenge facing members of Congress is to rise above all this, to find a way to reassert the values and aspirations that first brought them to national office.

How can they do this? I’m convinced that it comes down to attitude.

To begin, they have to put the country first. Not their party or their re-election or their political ambitions, but the nation’s best interest. The surest way I know to earn the respect of voters is to put responsible governance first.

In part, this means acting with the future in mind. Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address looked toward “our descendants to the thousandth and the thousandth generation.” That may be a longer time-frame than is politically realistic, but at the moment I’d even settle for just the thousandth and the thousandth day, which is more far-sighted than most members’ obsession with the next election. Americans care about their country’s future, and they want their representatives to do so, too.

This means that members of Congress need to accept responsibility for resolving the nation’s challenges, whether they’re in the majority or in the minority. Our country simply cannot survive the current reluctance to meet our problems head on or Capitol Hill’s tolerance for the sort of brinksmanship that leaves the nation on tenterhooks and difficult issues put off for another day.

Members have a responsibility to make the government work, and they need to square their shoulders and step up to it: to make decisions, to vote on the issues that need addressing — rather than on legislation designed to give them political cover or to pander to deep-pocketed interests — and to move the country forward.

To do this, they will have to work out their differences — through skillful negotiation, patience, understanding, accommodation, and compromise. Being a member does not mean treating adversaries as enemies to be defeated and humiliated; they are colleagues with whom one must cooperate on the larger goal of searching for a remedy to the challenges that beset the country. Focusing on the facts — rather than on scoring ideological points — and working together to build consensus based on those facts is the only way our representatives will be able to take on the responsibilities Americans expect of them.

That is what Americans are looking for. And that is what Congress needs to deliver if it wants to be more popular than root canals.

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.

3 Responses to Lee Hamilton: Some suggestions for improving Congress

  1. Mack Hargrave Reply

    February 8, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    We have all heard, and likely agreed, with the sentiments expressed by the Honorable Mr. Hamilton. I hope that I see the day that a hard truth in the halls of our governance can be accepted by both sides and dealt with as such. A hard truth would be one that is first, truth that most men of common sense would acknowledge. And second, a truth that suggest some painful actions are needed. Right now we have many hard truths staring us right in the face. And many of those have been side-stepped for a long time. In fact, many of them have beget situations that are in their own right, other hard truths. Social Security is one such as that. Paying for health care is another.

    Social Security is unsustainable. When the second Bush tried to get cooperation to fix it with very modest goals, he was destroyed. Why? Because it was easy for the Democrats to destroy him on that issue using scary claims. Just claim he was trying to hurt old people. A lie of course. Who in Congress is going to open himself up for that? What Congress or President has the courage to die trying to get some bi-partisan help on this one?

    On health care. We now have Obamacare as a fix. It becomes clearer every day that this fix is like surgery with a chainsaw. The hard truth is, we cannot fix this with tricky insurance schemes. Insurance IS the problem. Anytime you put a 3rd party between the consumer and the vendor, like we do with insurance companies, the cost will go up, up, and away. The increasing costs will now increase even at a faster rate with a huge bureaucracy behind it. I hate to be flippant, but duh? What did we expect?

    These are just two hard issues that no reasonable solution seems to be in the offing because they would be hard on lots of us.

    Instead they tax us more, and then say they need more taxes still, and now Obama is all set to make the case in his next big speech that we need to spend more and tax more. Sorry Mr. President, but even a tidal wave of taxes will not smother the raging debt that you are still incurring.

    Of course, there seems to be no room to reach a “consensus”. Because we cannot go half bankrupt. We can only go bankrupt period. That’s the hard truth.

    • Kathryn Reply

      February 9, 2013 at 5:09 pm

      Mack, this is such a good comment. Would you mind if I run it in the Commentary section as a Letter to the Editor?

      Also, I’ve been meaning for ages to come out and meet you and write a piece about Solavaca Ranch. Let me know when you think would be a good time to do that.

      Take care and thanks so much for reading,


  2. Larry P. Smith Reply

    February 7, 2013 at 7:12 am

    Pres.Obama,Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi should read this and heed Lee Hamilton`s advice!

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