Lee Hamilton Comments On Congress



Drawing upon his 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lee Hamilton posts a bi-weekly 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


    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 fai

  • 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 are

  • 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 mo

  • 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 ord

  • 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

  • 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 onl

  • Why Ethics Should Matter to Congress


    Congress will never regain the faith of ordinary Americans until members of Congress win their trust. This appears to be a long way off.I see no other way to read the results of a recent poll by the Center on Congress at Indiana University. When it asked 1,000 people whether members of Congress are “honest people of good character,” a rather stunning 42 percent said that most are not. Asked to grade Congress on holding its members to high ethical standards, 75 percent gave it either a D or an F.This dismal view of members' integrity — and of their interest in upholding the institution's integrity — is especially striking given the importance the general public places on it. Asked which characteristic they consider to be most critical in a member of Congress, respondents to the poll rated honesty as by far the most important, surpassing a member's positions on issues, religious convictions, good judgment, or ability to get things done.Given the weight the public places on honesty, you'd think that members of C

  • Whoever Is President, An Administration Needs Oversight


    I'm as interested as the next person in all the excitement about how Washington will work with Barack Obama in the White House, but there's an important question that's been missing. It has to do not so much with the new President as with the new Congress, and it should be high on every attentive citizen's list of concerns: Will Congress live up to its responsibility to exercise robust oversight over the new administration?This is especially important given the Democratic label that President Obama and the majorities in the House and Senate will share. Over the last two years, particularly in the House, Democrats began to delve into the activities and record of the current Republican administration. Once their own party controls the White House this will be harder to do, for obvious partisan reasons: There's a natural inclination to avoid inquiries that might seem to undermine the President or give ammunition to his political adversaries.It is vital that congressional leaders set that concern aside, for the s

  • The Decision To Go To War


    As Congress struggled to stave off financial meltdown recently, it was hard to imagine that it could ever face a more serious issue. Yet from time to time it does: when it ponders whether or not to send young Americans to war. Watching the gyrations on Capitol Hill over the economic bailout, I couldn't help but reflect that while there was great uncertainty about how Congress would respond to the economic crisis — Would it side with the White House plan? Would it modify the plan or try to come up with an alternative of its own? — there is rarely uncertainty about war. If the President wants it, he gets it. Our nation has long argued over whether this is how things should be. To my mind, the Constitution seems clear on the subject, stating in Article I, Section 8, that “Congress shall have power...to declare War.” Yet it also refers to the President as “Commander in Chief,” and in the ambiguity left by those two phrases it has seeded an ongoing political debate over how much right Congress