Lee Hamilton: Are we doomed to polarization?
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. He is also Co-Chair of PSA’s Board of Advisors. This article originally appeared in the Rock River Times.
We Americans are trapped in a political dilemma. We all like representative democracy, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing.
The reason for this dissatisfaction is clear. Polls in recent years detail a polarized nation, divided both ideologically and politically. This is, as the Pew Research Center put it recently, “a defining feature of politics today.” In the public’s eye, Washington gets most of the blame for this.
Yet, Congress and the political world around it reflect the rest of the country more than we’d like to believe. Our nation is divided ideologically. It’s also segregated politically, with many Americans preferring to associate with and live near people who share their views; gerrymandered districts and closed primaries intensify the effect. Our media are more partisan than they used to be. Interest groups — many of them funded by ordinary Americans who want their voices magnified — are more engaged than they were a generation ago. And though we deplore negative politics, we respond to it and even encourage our favorite partisans to engage in it.
Anyone who becomes president today does so with nearly half the country opposed to him the day he takes office. Moreover, we face a long list of issues where decisive action may be impossible: abortion, gun control, climate change, a host of budgetary and economic problems, the death penalty, tax reform, immigration, drug laws. These issues don’t just divide Congress; they divide the nation, with no clear path forward.
Our admired political system, in other words, is not working well. In Pew’s survey, the extremes make up just more than a third of the American public, but because they’re disproportionately active, they drive our politics. The larger, more diverse center can’t agree on a direction for the country, but its members are united by their distaste for the tone of politics and the unwillingness of politicians to compromise and break the stalemate. We are not getting the politics we want.
So, how do we resolve our dilemma?
Many procedural steps can ease the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Among them, the House and Senate could schedule themselves so they’re in session at the same time. Congressional leaders and the president ought to meet at least once a month. Congress needs to work the same five-day week the rest of us do, and reduce its centralized leadership by empowering committees. Open primaries would help moderate the nation’s politics, as would bipartisan redistricting commissions capable of doing away with gerrymandered districts. Increasing voter participation and improving the integrity of our elections would also help. Limiting the Senate filibuster and allowing minority parties in both chambers more of an opportunity to offer amendments, would open up debate and forestall endless stalemates.
But resolving our dilemma is unlikely to happen quickly. It’s hard to see either side in this partisan divide winning or losing decisively in the elections immediately ahead. Even if one party wins both houses in Congress, it’s not easy to move when the White House is in the control of another party. With the need for 60 votes in the Senate, the minority party can always find ways to slow things down.
Still, it’s worth remembering that American politics is dynamic, not static. Change occurs, sometimes quickly, but more often slowly. We won’t forever be this evenly divided, because public opinion will eventually evolve and the system will respond.
Which raises my final point. Even when our frustration with division and discord spills over into impatience with the system itself, our obligations as American citizens remain the same. We face complex problems that don’t have simple solutions. They demand a willingness to exercise the values of representative democracy: tolerance, mutual respect, accepting ideological differences, working to build consensus.
Our core values accept that the differences in opinions among us will continue, but also compel us to find a way through them so the country can move forward. By accepting the challenges that come with living in a representative democracy and renewing our confidence in it, we can lay the groundwork for change. In the end, we created our political dilemma and are responsible for working our way through 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. Lee Hamilton is also the Co-Chair of PSA’s Board of Advisors. This article originally appeared in the Rock River Times.
Lee Hamilton: Why I still have faith in Congress
It’s depressing to read poll after poll highlighting Americans’ utter disdain for Congress. But it’s my encounters with ordinary citizens at public meetings or in casual conversation that really bring me up short. In angry diatribes or in resigned comments, people make clear their dwindling confidence in both politicians and the institution itself.
With all Congress’s imperfections — its partisanship, brinksmanship and exasperating inability to legislate — it’s not hard to understand this loss of faith. Yet, as people vent their frustration, I hear something else as well. It is a search for hope. They ask, almost desperately sometimes, about grounds for renewed hope in our system. Here’s why I’m confident we can do better.
Thomas Pickering is a retired ambassador and former Under Secretary of State. He is currently a member of PSA’s Advisory Board. This article was co-authored by Nicholas Kralev. The article originally appeared in USA Today.
Take Politics Out of Diplomacy
Diplomacy is easy and anyone can do it. This is the message U.S. presidents of both parties have been sending the American people and the world for decades. They have done so not verbally, but through their actions, giving away ambassadorial posts as rewards to unqualified people only because they were top fundraisers during the presidents’ election campaigns.
As old as that issue is, it has received renewed and greater attention recently, following last month’s embarrassing Senate confirmation hearing of President Obama’s nominees as ambassadors to Norway and Hungary. Sen. John McCain’s public shaming of those nominees, hotel magnate George Tsunis and soap opera producer Colleen Bell, for not knowing basic facts about the country where they are supposed to serve or about U.S. interests in that country, has sparked important media commentary.
Lee Hamilton is a member of PSA’s Advisory Board and the director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. This article was originally published on Glen Rose Current.
An Alternative to the Imperial Presidency
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.
“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families,” he said, “that’s what I’m going to do.”
Gary Hart is a lawyer and former senator from Colorado. He currently serves on PSA’s Advisory Board. Norman Augustine co-authored the article. This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.
Why 9/11 Can Happen Again
In February 2001, a bipartisan federal commission on which we served warned that terrorists would acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption. “Attacks against American citizens on American soil, possibly causing heavy casualties, are likely over the next quarter-century,” the Hart-Rudman Commission said. “In the face of this threat, our nation has no coherent or integrated governmental structures.” We added: “Congress should rationalize its current committee structure so that it best serves U.S. national security objectives.”
We identified 50 ways to improve national security, none of which was implemented before 9/11. One recommendation — to create a single agency to deal with homeland security — was not acted on until a year and a half after those tragic attacks.
Lee Hamilton is co-chair of PSA’s Advisory Board and Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. This article was originally posted in the Union-Bulletin.
Column: Hold the Congratulations for Congress
Now that Congress has its immense, $1.1 trillion bipartisan funding bill in hand, Capitol Hill is breathing easier. They ended the specter of a government shutdown for the moment, and funded the federal budget for most of the year. The media has been commending Congress for finally doing its job.
This praise works only in the context of recent history, however. The bill that congressional leaders produced is hardly a triumph. Instead, it’s another example of Congress’s stubborn determination to deal itself out of the budgeting process. Let me explain.
Ryan McClure is an attorney, intern at Partnership for a Secure America, and foreign policy blogger focusing on U.S. foreign policy in East Asia. He can be followed on Twitter @The BambooC.
The Need for Bipartisanship on U.S.-Burma Policy
The United States’ relationship with Burma has greatly changed in a brief period of time. Just three years ago, Burma was a pariah state subject to severe American sanctions. Today, sanctions have been lessened and the Burmese president is welcomed at the White House. The reason for these changes is Burma’s quasi-military government’s decision to carry out political reform toward a more democratic system. However, political oppression and human rights violations continue.
The Obama Administration, while aware of these abuses, persists in rewarding the Burmese government for geo-strategic reasons. Because of this, Congress must press the Administration to institute a more deliberate policy that rewards Burma with economic and diplomatic engagement only when concrete, sustained benchmarks have been met. (more…)
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He is a member of the PSA Advisory Board. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. This article originally appeared in The Ceres Courier.
IN WASHINGTON, IDEOLOGY NEED NOT REIGN SUPREME
As I speak to people about the Congress, one question arises more than any other: Why is Congress gridlocked? People are perplexed and disappointed with its performance, and are searching hard for an answer.
The roots of Congress’s dysfunction are complex. But the fundamental reason is that real differences in ideology and principles about both government and governance exist among the voters. At heart, the reason it’s become so hard for Washington to act is that the two parties are being driven by fundamentally incompatible views.
Conservatives place a heavy emphasis on liberty, individual freedom, and self-reliance. They have little confidence in government’s ability to play a role in improving society or the economy, and many of them look upon government as destructive, a force that undermines our basic freedom. They are fearful of centralized power, opposed to redistribution of any kind, and opposed to new government programs – or even to improving existing government programs they’d rather see cut. They reject entirely the notion of raising taxes or imposing new regulations on the private sector.
Moreover, a belief has taken hold among some conservatives in recent years that compromise and accommodation are betrayals of their cause. This has put great pressure on GOP leaders not to budge in their negotiations with the White House and Senate Democrats.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He is a member of the PSA Advisory Board. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. This article was originally published in the Waco Tribune-Herald.
Can politicians turn statesmen and regain public trust?
Back in June, Gallup released a survey that got a fair bit of attention for its headline finding: only 10 percent of Americans trust Congress as an institution. Think about it. If you walk into a cafe this morning and there are nine other people in there reading the paper or staring into their laptops, only one of you in the room has faith that the body charged with making our nation’s laws can do its job right.
What didn’t get quite as much coverage was the fact that Congress was just one of 16 institutions whose public standing Gallup measured. Atop the list in Americans’ confidence was the military, followed by small business and the police. Then came organized religion, which about half of Americans trust.
The bad news in the poll arrived after that. The fifth most-trusted institution is the presidency — but it enjoyed the confidence of only 36 percent of poll respondents. The Supreme Court stood at 34 percent, down three points from last year.
What lies behind Americans’ doubts and cynicism is undoubtedly a mix of factors. But I suspect it rests most heavily on a broad perception of dysfunction and a deep distaste for the extreme polarization and politicization these institutions have displayed.
We’ve always looked on the Supreme Court as standing above politics, for instance. Most noticeably starting with its Bush v. Gore decision in the wake of the 2000 elections, however, the court has come to be seen as divided into political factions, with each trying to advance its own agenda. It is now perceived less as an institution of law and more as a political institution.
Congress and the presidency, of course, are political institutions. But the current tenor of American politics works against them. Campaigns are as much or more about attacking the other candidate as they are about debating substantive issues. Every move that members of Congress make — and that many Republicans believe the president makes — appears to be about “playing to the base” or putting the other side in an uncomfortable spot. Resolving problems because they need to be resolved — especially the ones that Americans consider most important, like jobs and the economy — doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.
Americans’ lack of confidence in their governing institutions makes correcting most any political or policy problem more difficult. The voters are less open to policy-making or reform, since they don’t trust that government can actually solve the issue in front of it.
Much-needed reforms — to repair the tax system, for instance, or to reshape government institutions — will be met with skepticism if not indifference. The result is only very modest efforts can be expected, reaffirming voters’ belief government can’t be trusted to work, and fueling political tensions that rise when problems remain unresolved.
Government relies on policy direction and resources allotted by policy makers to do its job. But it relies equally strongly on trust. It may be trite to say that “trust is the coin of the realm,” but it’s no less true for that. Without it, our institutions simply cannot be effective.
I don’t expect this recent poll to be seen as a wake-up call in Washington. The city seems too embroiled in its own machinations to be worried about such matters as “trust.” Yet it is also true that if members of Congress, the White House and even Supreme Court justices want Americans to treat them seriously — to listen to them, believe them and above all believe in the institutions they serve — then they won’t treat our declining confidence in them lightly. They have to invigorate their efforts to renew Americans’ trust. Because unless they can do that, it will get harder and harder for them to do their jobs.
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Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He is a member of the PSA Advisory Board. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. This was originally published in the Journal Sentinel Online.
Members of Congress can cure this disease of dysfunction if they want to
I’ve noticed a recurring question as I talk to people about Congress. What can be done, they wonder, to get Congress back on track? Is our national legislature capable of serious policy-making? At a time when polls say that jobs and the economy are Americans’ chief concern, Congress has not passed a single piece of economic legislation. Instead, it’s focused on investigations. It’s an institution with very little to show for its efforts.
There’s a reason for this. Few legislators know how to make it work any more — respect the legislative process and know it intimately, have mastered the substantive and procedural details and have the political savvy and skill to move a bill to enactment.
How can Congress improve? A few procedural fixes might help, but the real answer is actually pretty simple: change the way members of Congress work.
First, they need to put in more time legislating on the major challenges facing the country. Only twice this year has Congress been in session for four weeks straight. Its members spend too much of each week at home campaigning and meeting with constituents, and don’t use their limited time in Washington well: much of it goes to meeting lobbyists, legislating on minor if not trivial matters, making the rounds of receptions and raising funds.
Members have few occasions to get to know one another except in the confrontational settings of committee rooms and the floor of their chamber, and as a result they don’t know how to work together. Just as dispiriting, they know even less about what we sent them there to do: crafting and enacting legislation. It takes skill and perseverance to create meaningful policies that forge common ground among competing interests and ideologies. The time-consuming, difficult work of legislating on complex issues is becoming a lost art.
To begin restoring it, members have to remember that they are a separate, co-equal branch of government. They’ve allowed Congress to become a reactive body. It takes its cues from the president — either in deference to him or in opposition to him, but always with reference to him. Capitol Hill should be an engine of creative policy-making and inquiry, not the place that dynamic lawmaking withers.
This can’t happen, however, if members of Congress continue putting politics ahead of policy-making.
I’m not naive. Politics is always going to be important, but it ought not dominate lawmakers’ actions. They can be politicians at election time, but once they reach Capitol Hill, our Constitution expects them to be policy-makers and legislators. So do ordinary Americans. The partisan maneuvering, the compulsion to send a message rather than legislate and the lack of solid accomplishment have driven Americans’ disdain for Congress to record highs.
If lawmakers want to reverse this, they need to re-order their priorities. They’ll rein in their partisan instincts. They’ll spend less time asking for money — often from the people affected by the bills they’re voting on — and more on building friendships and relationships among colleagues, especially of the opposite party, who can help them enact legislation. They’ll ignore trivial bills that give the appearance of action but accomplish little, and learn how to do rigorous oversight, with truth-seeking hearings that are fair and balanced.
They’ll master the legislative process, rather than delegating bill-writing and even strategy to staff. They’ll send their polite regrets to the invitations that pour in for receptions, dinners, media appearances and all the other distractions that keep a member of Congress busy, and bear down on the work their constituents sent them to pursue.
Here’s the most important part: They don’t need legislation or constitutional amendments or procedural fixes or even years of seniority to start. They just need to go to work and make the Congress and our representative democracy effective at serving the best interests of the country.
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.