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Lee Hamilton '52 on Congress: "Watching It Now is Painful"

February 2, 2013

Lee Hamilton 2010Aug USTLee Hamilton, a 1952 DePauw University graduate who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, writes that "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."

In a newspaper op-ed, the Democrat notes that a national survey finds Americans "have a lower opinion of Congress than of head lice, Genghis Khan, used-car salesmen and root canals ... 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 often are 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."

According to Hamilton, "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."

The veteran statesman says lawmakers need 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."

Negotiation, compromise and accommodation are needed for change to occur, Hamilton asserts. "Being a member does not Lee Hamilton Ubben 2011 1mean 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."

Access the complete essay at the website of Minnesota's Winona Daily News.

Lee Hamilton majored in history as an undergraduate and starred on the Tiger basketball team (and is a member of both the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and the DePauw Athletic Hall of Fame). He now directs the Center on Congress at Indiana University. 

The veteran statesman has been a frequent visitor to DePauw over the years, and delivered an Ubben Lecture on March 15, 2011.

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