9 episodes

Drawing upon his 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee Hamilton writes a 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.

Lee Hamilton Comments on Congress Lee Hamilton

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Drawing upon his 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee Hamilton writes a 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.

    Effective Oversight Requires Effective Press

    Effective Oversight Requires Effective Press

    These are extraordinary political and economic times, and even from a distance you can sense the animation on Capitol Hill as Congress debates President Obama's stimulus package, weighs his executive-branch appointments, and responds to his various initiatives. You can feel the same intensity in the Washington press corps, as it works to keep a rapt public briefed on the ins and outs of the capital's daily workings. Yet as capable a job as it's doing right now, we should all be worried about what happens with the press in upcoming months. I say this because reporters in Washington bear great responsibility in our democracy at the moment. Both Congress and the White House are in the hands of the same political party, which is almost certain to magnify an already troubling long-term trend: congressional deference to White House authority, especially on budgetary and foreign-policy issues. We saw the pernicious effect of this during the first six years of the previous administration, when a Republican Congress failed in its oversight role of a Republican president. Now, although the policy particulars are different with a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president, the results could very well turn out the same: A Congress that defers to the president is, unfortunately, a Congress that is prone to be passive in the oversight of his administration, which can lead to ineffective government performance, unresponsive bureaucracy, and wasteful spending. A few legislators will conduct tough oversight, but the likelihood is high that most will not. This means that the watchdogs of the press will be needed more than ever to delve into the federal government's nooks and crannies, analyze its performance, make sure that programs are implemented as intended, explore the shadows where officials often feel most comfortable operating, and make sure that both the American people and members of Congress understand what the government is doing in their name. The public's dependence on the press, however, couldn't come at a more challenging time. Almost every day now brings word of newspaper cutbacks — in space for news, in reporters, and in the resources that can be devoted to research, investigation and reporting. News organizations from Gannett to the Tribune Company to Cox Communications have been laying off and shrinking, with the result that newspapers large and small are trimming or even closing their Washington bureaus, a trend that has been echoed at state capitols around the country. Inevitably, this means that the breadth of news we can get about our governments, both federal and state, is shrinking, too. This is not to say that the volume of political and policy news has shrunk — not with niche cable channels, the blogosphere, the websites of organizations devoted to particular issues, and a press corps that, despite its travails, remains determined to cover Washington. Nor do I mean to suggest that we don't get solid investigative work out of the DC press corps any longer. It was the Washington Post, for instance, that reported on the CIA's secret interrogation sites for suspected terrorists and on mismanagement at the Smithsonian Institution. It was The New York Times that broke the story about the government's warrantless wiretapping program. And it was a politics-and-policy website, Talking Points Memo, that led the press corps in detailing the Justice Department's politically motivated firing of U.S. attorneys. Moreover, the not-for-profit effort, ProPublica, shows promise as a source of serious investigative reporting down the road. Still, the federal government is immense, and over the years most of the press corps had already given up paying close, detailed attention to the inner workings of various departments, from Agriculture to Housing and Urban Development. This is the kind of coverage that requires patient digging, months of work, detailed knowledge of the arcana of federal policy, sophisticated databases, culti

    In Congress, First Impressions Matter

    In Congress, First Impressions Matter

    The start of a new Congress is a time of hope for great accomplishments. For new members, though, it is also when they lay the groundwork for their careers on Capitol Hill. New members face a lot of difficult decisions early on, and their political reputations — both in Washington and at home — will be shaped by how they make them. This is partly because first impressions linger on Capitol Hill. Will a new member be a legislator or a limelight-seeking showboater? Will he or she focus on work inside Congress — drafting legislation and helping to shape strategy on policy — or on becoming known outside the institution? People in Congress watch one another closely, as does the press, and they begin to make judgments early; negative impressions can be very hard to overcome. The challenge, of course, is that being an effective member of Congress requires an astounding variety of skills, which also have to be learned early on. So if you were just starting up on Capitol Hill, what should you be doing? There are two arenas to focus on — inside Congress, and back in the district — and here's my advice for both. First, get to know your colleagues — both chambers, both parties. Attend social events, get together after work, do your best to be approachable and helpful. Personal relationships matter in Congress because they can help overcome ideological and political differences. You will be astounded by the number of times you ask your colleagues for help. Second, learn the rules of parliamentary procedure, because you'll need them if you want to be effective. Get to know House or Senate officers, such as the parliamentarian — they can help enormously if you let them. And while you're studying, pay close attention to the ethics rules in your chamber and then follow them; you'll save yourself and your staff much heartburn later. Third, work hard to get the best committee assignment you can for your district or state. Embrace its workload: attend meetings, be prepared, ask tough questions of witnesses, prepare amendments that will make legislation better. Let your colleagues know you are a serious legislator by picking an issue and championing it. Get to know as much as you possibly can about the bills you vote on — if you can get your colleagues coming to you for information or advice on bills, you're halfway to building a solid reputation. You can go the rest of the way by being thoughtful toward your colleagues. So, fourth, don't be a know-it-all or have a solution for every problem, and be informed, rational and reasonable. Support your leadership when you can and tell them early when you can't. You have to be true to yourself and your district — your leaders expect that. But they don't like to be surprised by an unexpected vote against their position. Fifth, hire an excellent staff. They are indispensable to your work. No matter how much you bone up on issues, there's always more to learn; they can help you. And if you want to win re-election, make sure you have top-notch aides for constituent service. A good staff will make you a better member of Congress. Sixth, don't ever forget your constituents. You work for them. Without their support, you'll end up back home permanently. So, seventh, you have to develop a strategy for communicating with them. A lot of Americans feel as though their representatives in Washington don't hear them and aren't interested — so the time-honored newsletter home isn't enough. Think about how you'll use the Web, social-networking tools, publicity, and your own visits to the district to reach as many people as possible and hear what they have to say. Travel home frequently: you simply cannot learn enough about your district or state, or get to know too many constituents. Eighth, pick a few projects back home that have broad support, and begin working hard to get them approved. Small triumphs early build confidence and support. Ninth, if you're in the House, plan now on how to get re-

    Good Communication Anchors Our Democracy

    Good Communication Anchors Our Democracy

    Shortly before the turn of the year, I got a look at some polling numbers that brought me up short. They suggest that our representative democracy has a great deal of work to do. Every year, the Center on Congress at Indiana University polls about a thousand people across the country to gauge their attitudes toward, and experiences with, members of Congress. Our most recent survey looked into the relationship between constituents and their representatives. It found a few encouraging signs: Almost half the respondents had contacted their representatives in Washington during the past two years, for instance, while 58 percent had read their members' newsletters and two-thirds of those had found this material useful. So there is some life in the "dialogue" between key players in our representative democracy. Yet there was also sobering news. A full 68 percent of the respondents indicated that they don't believe members of Congress care what people like them think. And when asked whom members of Congress listen to most carefully, they turned even more cynical. Only 10 percent thought members of Congress pay the closest attention to people back home; 38 percent indicated party leaders; and over half, 51 percent, said they're convinced members of Congress listen above all to lobbyists. These are dismaying figures. The very heart of our democracy is the relationship between voters and the men and women who represent them. Our system depends on the ability of voters to convey to their representatives what's on their minds, on the ability of representatives to explain to voters the choices that confront them, and on the care with which each listens to what the other has to say. If voters don't believe they're being listened to — or, just as important, if they don't trust what their representatives are telling them — then a key piece of our political system needs rebuilding. What I find especially intriguing about these poll results is that members of Congress do spend a lot of time and effort trying to reach out to constituents. They maintain staffs devoted solely to carrying on the correspondence that goes naturally with the job; they send out newsletters and e-mails explaining their positions; they meet with constituents in Washington, and travel home frequently for open houses and community gatherings. Even so, this recent poll suggests that none of this is as effective as politicians would like to believe. I suspect that a large part of this has to do with perception on both sides. Many House members — the federal representatives closest to the people — come from essentially uncompetitive districts. They really do not have to listen to all of their constituents, only to a small fraction of them; nor do they have to campaign hard every two years, giving them less incentive to work tirelessly to be in touch with every strand of thought within their district. It's not that members deliberately ignore particular constituencies, but I know from experience that it's very easy to believe that you're meeting a lot of people as you travel around your district, when in fact you're actually just seeing the same people over and over again. You might visit a given community five or ten times over the course of a year, but if you look back and ask yourself whom you actually saw, you'll find it's often the same people: the news media, the party hierarchy and activists, the movers and shakers. You're not actually reaching deep into the community. Similarly, many voters satisfy themselves with very limited exposure to their representatives: the occasional letter or e-mail; a glance at a newsletter; whatever they read in the press, see on the news, or hear about on talk radio. They don't take the extra steps to acquaint themselves with their representatives' votes or positions, much less seek out chances to talk with them face to face. So it becomes easy to buy into the national story line that Congress has grown distant from the people an

    Congress Needs Proper Leadership

    Congress Needs Proper Leadership

    As Congress moves beyond last November's elections and turns its attention to governing, it has to perform one of the toughest pivots in American politics. Governing is much more difficult than campaigning. After going at it hammer and tongs in congressional races, Democrats and Republicans now have a branch of government to run and policy to produce. Switching priorities to put the country and the institution of Congress ahead of politics can be a stretch for members. The key to whether they succeed, enabling Congress to reach its potential as a representative body more equal in weight to the presidency, will be the congressional leadership. Its members set the tone of the Congress: They can act as stewards of its institutional strength, integrity, and effectiveness, or squander its potential. They signal how much weight they'll attach to ethical behavior and tough ethics enforcement, and can make or break legislation designed to further it. They determine whether cooperation across party lines will be the order of the day, a rarity, or out of the question. They decide how the budget is to be put together. Above all, they craft the congressional agenda and determine whether it's going to be used merely to score political points or to respond in good faith to challenges facing our nation. Leaders are the ones in a position to determine which issues will come forward for consideration, and which will be set aside; what oversight will be done and what ignored; what will get the media spotlight and what will remain in the shadows; which programs will be included in appropriations bills and which won't. They have enormous power, in other words, over both the substance and the style of Congress. And they are the ones who largely determine whether Congress will become a stronger partner in our representative democracy or defer to the president to take the lead. In some periods, as during the Great Society era during the 1960s, Congress was highly regarded because it was seen as addressing the key problems facing the country. There were significant accomplishments amid bipartisan cooperation, if not collegiality. Other periods have seen a breakdown on both fronts. And still others may produce a less productive record on legislation, but still be marked by an overall respect for Congress's integrity as an institution. When House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Minority Leader Bob Michel squared off in public debate during the 1980s, for instance, it was only after intense but congenial discussions over how each of their caucuses viewed a measure; they would give a ringing speech on the floor to rally their troops, but in almost every case each man knew how the vote would turn out. They knew how to work with one another to assure that Congress lived up to its constitutional responsibilities, while remaining true to their political responsibilities. Leaders must be held principally responsible for the performance of the Congress. If the institution is not performing well under stress - if it is ignoring proper budget process, sidestepping tough issues, not disciplining wayward members, or deferring excessively to the president and neglecting its constitutional role - that is a failure of congressional leadership. Often, leaders are quick to blame the opposition for standing in the way of progress, and sometimes that's legitimate; frequently, though, it's because the leaders failed to work well together, putting political advantage over legislative solutions. Over the last few decades, the leaders' responsibility for Congress's performance has grown measurably greater. This is because their power has, too: Leaders of both parties have worked to increase their budgets and concentrate power in their offices. Their staffs have grown - where a speaker or minority leader might once have turned for policy advice to the chairs of particular committees, they now have their own advisors on energy or foreign policy or the economy. And they have changed

    Congress, Too, Can Set The Agenda

    Congress, Too, Can Set The Agenda

    Once he is sworn in on January 20, our new president will command all eyes. After a long campaign in which he and his rival traded policy prescriptions and accusations about their respective flaws, the country will be anxious to see the White House's agenda. Congress, it seems safe to say, will be an afterthought, its views given weight only insofar as they might hinder or abet the president's plans. And really, why should they matter? The 435 House members and 35 senators who ran in November's elections present a cacophony of views — they're liberal and conservative, from large states and small, representing every conceivable kind of American voter. It's impossible for them to speak with one voice or with the institutional heft to be found at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. Moreover, Congress long ago abandoned the practice of trying to put forward its own plans, and Americans have certainly lost the habit of looking to it for leadership. Even Congressional Quarterly, a magazine whose reason for being is to parse every nuance of life on Capitol Hill, carried a cover story a month before the election entitled, “11 Issues for the Next President.” It said, “The winner of the Nov. 4 election will face the most difficult roster of top–tier issues in a generation while trying to restore the country's faith in its government.” On everything from the economy to taxes, energy, and our nation's infrastructure needs, it suggested, Congress would be left to react, not to create. While this picture certainly fits our national expectations, there are two problems with it: It's not how things are supposed to be; and it's not healthy for the United States. The Constitution sets out a very clear expectation that Congress and the president are to be colleagues — equals — in determining the course of the country. And there is a compelling reason for this. The very forces that make it difficult for Congress to speak with one voice, especially its members' closeness to the diverse constituencies from which they hail, also provide Congress with a fine–textured understanding of national concerns and sentiment. Better than any other part of the federal government, Congress reflects the regional, ideological, economic and cultural diversity of the United States. This is crucial to crafting good policy, policy that is consistent, relevant, and sustainable over the long term. Such policy springs not from a single opinion about what's needed, but from sharp analysis and civil dialogue among people with different points of view, values, and experiences. Congress, in other words, is as indispensable an actor in laying out a national policy agenda as is the president. That it has chosen not to play that role in recent decades — with a few exceptions, like last year's boost in the minimum wage — has turned it into a reactive body with very little control over the policy debate; he who sets the agenda, after all, controls the discussion and usually the results, and recent presidents have been extremely forceful about putting forth both a domestic and foreign agenda. It has been politically easier for members of Congress to let the president take the lead, especially since it is very hard work to craft an agenda that a majority of both houses can agree upon. Given this history and the degeneration of Congress's policy–crafting muscles, it seems unreasonable to expect that Congress will suddenly set about advancing its own agenda for every problem, foreign and domestic, that assails us. Yet surely it's in a position to act more forcefully than in the recent past. If it wishes to fulfill its constitutional role and rebuild its standing as an institution that commands the respect of the American people — and, more important, earns legitimacy as a branch of government — it should certainly start to put forward initiatives to which the president can respond. Congress needs to be a more assertive presence in Washington generally

    The Ten Commandments of Citizenship

    The Ten Commandments of Citizenship

    This presidential election, if you believe the polls and the rhetoric, is about change in Washington. Both candidates promise it, while voters clamor for it. It is the cause of the moment. Yet I have news for you: Change in Washington won't happen, and certainly can't be sustained, without change in the country at large. For the point is not to overthrow the system, it's to make it function properly. Government does not fix itself. Only a citizenry that is engaged in our democracy to an extent far greater than in recent decades can help to heal our system. To get change in Washington, in other words, it has to begin with you. Since being a responsible citizen takes commitment, here are some precepts to follow if you want to be effective — what I call the “Ten Commandments of Citizenship”: Vote. This is the most basic step democracy asks of us. Don't buy the argument that it doesn't matter. Every election offers real choices about the direction we want our towns, states and country to take. By voting, you not only select the officials who will run the government, you suggest the direction government policy should take and reaffirm your support for a representative democracy. Be informed. To be a knowledgeable voter, you need to know what candidates actually stand for, not just what their ads or their opponents' ads say. Read about the issues that confront your community and our nation as a whole. Our government simply does not work well if its citizens are ill–informed. Communicate with your representatives. Representative democracy is a dialogue between elected officials and citizens — that dialogue lies at the heart of our system. Legislators and executives can't do their job well if they don't understand their constituents' concerns, and we can't understand them if we don't know their views and why they hold them. Participate in groups that share your views and can advance your interests. This one's simple: In a democracy, people tend to be more effective when they work together rather than acting as individuals. You can be sure that almost every issue you care about has one or more organizations devoted to it. By joining and working with the ones you think best reflect your views, you amplify your beliefs and strengthen the dialogue of democracy. Get involved locally to improve your community. You know more about your community's strengths and weaknesses than anyone living outside it. Identify its problems and work to correct them. Involvement is the best antidote I know to cynicism. Educate your family, and make sure that local schools are educating students, about their responsibilities as citizens. As a society, we're not as good as we should be at encouraging young people to get involved in political life. Too many young people — and even many adults — do not understand how our government and political system work and why it is important for them to be contributing citizens. Understand that we must work to build consensus in a huge, diverse country. In pretty much every way you can think of, ours is an astoundingly mixed nation of people, with wildly divergent views on most issues and a constantly growing population. This means we have to work through our differences not by hammering on the other side, but by bringing people together through the arts of dialogue, accommodation, compromise, and consensus–building. Understand that our representative democracy works slowly. There's a reason for this: it is so that all sides can be heard, and so that we avoid the costly mistakes produced by haste. Our Founders understood this 220 years ago, and it's even more vital now, when issues are vastly more complex and the entire world is closely connected. Understand that our system is not perfect, but has served the nation well. Democracy is a process designed to give people a voice in how they are governed. It's not perfect — far too many people feel voiceless, and polls in recent years suggest that unsettling

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