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"Our Democracy Has Suffered" Under a Weakened Congress, Asserts Lee Hamilton '52

January 20, 2006

hamilton-ifa2004.jpgJanuary 20, 2006, Greencastle, Ind. - "Imagine that you pick up a newspaper story about one of the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Reading it, you can't help but chuckle over how much of the old regime lingers in the supposedly 'democratic' national legislature," writes Lee Hamilton, former United States Congressman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University, in an op-ed published in Indiana's Decatur Daily Democrat. The essay is headlined "Is this the Congress we want?" Hamilton, a Democrat, spent 34 years on Capitol Hill as a representative from southern Indiana.

In those Eastern European countries, "When they seem inconvenient, key legislative rules and protections are often simply bypassed," Hamilton asserts. "Leaders are so anxious to avoid public scrutiny or real debate that they routinely wait until the middle of the night to hold votes on important issues. They also have a habit of giving ordinary legislators just a few hours to wade through bills that take up hundreds of pages before demanding a vote. And when the country's ruler decides to launch a program to spy on its citizens, only a few members of the legislature are told about it, and none demand that other elected representatives get a chance to weigh the move's wisdom or legality." us capitol night.jpg

The vice chair of the 9/11 Commission continues, "You'd put that story down, I'll wager, relieved that this is not how your own democracy runs. Except, as you've probably guessed, I'm not talking about the parliament of some former Communist country. I'm describing last year's session of the United States Congress."

Hamilton says lawmakers in Washington talked tough but wound up approving watered-down proposals that did little to address America's problems. Modern politicians have "a penchant for finding creative ways of avoiding debate on controversial topics," he notes, adding, "In case after case, Congress showed a reluctance to embrace accountability, open debate and other hallmarks of democratic process. Congressional leaders seemed content to allow a secret program of surveillance over American citizens to go forward with only eight of the Congress' 535 members even aware of it, and those eight not having an effective way to debate or object to it."

Hamilton believes that Congress needs to "behave like the 'people's body' it is supposed to be, following rules that were designed to foster debate and careful deliberation, to respect the clearly expressed views of a majority of lawmakers, and to allow for public scrutiny and accountability. It has increasingly departed from those rules, and our democracy has suffered as a result."

lee hamilton color.jpgIn conclusion, he notes, "A longstanding joke is that laws are like sausage: It is better not to see them being made. Yet Congress' abuse of good process and its taste for hiding its activities have become too serious for jokes. Ignoring essential features of the democratic process began years ago in Congress, but the problem now seems out of control. How much further can this trend go, I wonder, before we can no longer claim to have a functioning representative democracy?"

Read the complete column at the newspaper's Web site.

In October, Lee Hamilton and others including former President Bill Clinton, were honored with the Four Freedoms Medal by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. Learn more in this previous story.

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