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Can Congress Rise to the New President's Challenge?, Asks Lee Hamilton '52

March 20, 2009

lee hamilton color.jpgMarch 20, 2009, Greencastle, Ind. — "I arrived in Congress in 1965, just as President Lyndon Johnson's transformation of the U.S. government was getting under way," recalls Lee Hamilton, the 1952 DePauw University graduate who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. In California's Santa Monica Daily Press, he writes, "It was an extraordinary time, as LBJ sent up to Capitol Hill his proposals for Medicare, Medicaid, aid to elementary and secondary education, the Voting Rights Act, and a host of other bills that reshaped Washington and its place in the nation's life. The United States was a different country by the time Congress finished."

He continues, "We are at a juncture that may be as far-reaching and no less dramatic. With the economic crisis as a backdrop, President Obama has sent to Capitol Hill a budget that places the government more thoroughly in American life than at any time in the past three decades, and eschews the anti-tax, anti-regulatory approach to public policy that has generally predominated in recent decades."us capitol night.jpg

The new president is determined to reform the nation's health care and educational systems and reshape its energy policy, Hamilton notes. "There is an important difference in the approaches taken by the two presidents, Johnson and Obama. Enjoying the momentum built by his landslide victory in the 1964 elections, Johnson gave Congress specific proposals, like the Medicaid bill and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He told Congress precisely what he wanted and then helped shape its response. President Obama, on the other hand, has given Congress the goals he wants to pursue and the concepts he intends to support, then left it up to lawmakers to craft the fine print. As the New York Times put it recently, he is 'taking a gamble in outsourcing the drafting of his agenda's details' to Congress."

Congress, the veteran statesman believes, is now presented with an "exacting test of its ability to function effectively and produce policies that serve the American people well. Congress has a history of not dealing well with the big issues. Now it's presented with a budget and a presidential agenda that offer no letup in big issues. Its challenge is two-fold: to act at a time of crisis and in an economy that's being reshaped by the day; and, despite the pressure to act quickly, to act in a manner that allows for the deliberation and consensus-building that uphold the democratic process."

In the Democrat's view, "Congress has been given an extraordinary opportunity to live up to its constitutional responsibilities and to function effectively in the national interest ... Now, at a time when Americans are closely tuned in to events in Washington, Congress is being asked by the president to address a far-reaching agenda. It can do so by reviving the traditionLee Hamilton Testifies.jpg of open debate that enlightens the American people and allows its members to weigh the questions before them as they develop consensus, or it can give in to its recent habits of procedural expediency and partisan tactics. The test for Congress is clear. Let's hope it chooses wisely."

Access the complete essay at the newspaper's Web site.

Lee H. Hamilton is director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Newsweek has called him "Mr. Integrity," while the New York Times' David Brooks opined of Hamilton, "The country is hungering for leaders like him: open-minded, unassuming centrists who are interested in government more than politics."

Learn more about him in this recent story.

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