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Congress Needs "The Institutionalist," According to Lee Hamilton '52

June 28, 2009

Lee Hamilton HS Lg 2008.jpgJune 28, 2009, Greencastle, Ind. — "In these highly politicized times," the United States Congress has great need for "the institutionalist," writes Lee Hamilton in a newspaper op-ed. The veteran statesman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University explains, "This means pretty much what it sounds like: A member who puts the institution of Congress first. Who welcomes responsibility for making it work; who pushes his or her colleagues to fulfill their constitutional obligations; who respects the role and history of Congress in forging this country's history."

According to Hamilton, a Democrat who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, "Institutionalists generally tend to be more senior members of Congress, whose years on Capitol Hill not only give them an appreciation for the accomplishments of the legislators who came before them, but also help them put in perspective all the other considerations that compete for a younger member's attention, like partisanship, power, relations with the White us capitol night.jpgHouse, and the regular task of getting re-elected. For what an institutionalist values above all else is the role that Congress plays in making our representative democracy viable. It should not be merely a body of elected officials, each pursuing his or her own goals or banding together to advance one political party's interests. Rather, Congress has a set of responsibilities laid out in the Constitution and developed over the 220 years of its existence that enable it to serve as the place where the American people come closest to touching their national government."

The man who co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group continues, "To do what's required of it, Congress must function as a deliberative and democratic body; work as both a partner and a critic of the presidency; protect itself against inevitable pressure from the White House to let the President set the agenda in all things; and engage constantly in the search for remedies to the challenges that beset our country. These things don't just happen on their own. They require members of Congress to tend to the body in which they serve.

"All too often, though, both incumbents and challengers these days run against the Congress, taking delight in criticizing it and hoping to make themselves look good as a result; Lee Hamilton CSPAN.jpgthis public disdain for the institution makes it much harder to play a constructive role in building on what's right about the place."

Hamilton calls on lawmakers to embrace "fairness and deliberation and consensus-seeking (which) have not been noticeable priorities in Congress of late. Over the last couple of decades, concern for how Congress functions as an institution has increasingly taken a back seat to other priorities: Party-building, fundraising, the centralization of power in the leadership's hands, making certain that members can take four days every week to get home and campaign." The nation has suffered for it, he asserts.

The column concludes, "Institutionalists in Congress are often seen by their peers as slightly quirky nags, consumed with the trifles of process or precedent while the more important work of fighting against the opposition or slamming legislation through at all costs goes ahead. But of course, they've got it backward. It's the institutionalistsLee Hamilton Students Sept 2008.JPG who have the nation's best interests at heart, because they understand the role that Congress plays in sustaining a functioning democracy and making the country work." (at right: Hamilton with two DePauw student journalists, September 18,2008)

Read the complete essay at the Web site of Indiana's Greene County Daily World.

Lee H. Hamilton is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was recently reappointed to the Department of Homeland Security's Advisory Council (HSAC). Learn more in this recent story.

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