"Basic Fairness in Legislative Procedure is Essential," Writes Lee Hamilton '52
February 25, 2011
February 25, 2011, Greencastle, Ind. — "A few weeks ago, the U.S. Senate voted down a Republican attempt to repeal last year’s health-care reform law," writes Lee Hamilton in a newspaper op-ed. "And the repeal measure came to a vote because the Democratic majority agreed that it could," adds the former congressman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University. "There’s a lesson here, and it’s a simple one. Basic fairness in legislative procedure is essential to the smooth running of Congress and to the achievement of consensus."
According to Hamilton, a Democrat who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, "Ideally, when a bill comes forward, both sides should offer amendments that require members of Congress to vote on the major policy issues it presents. This does not mean you have to allow every amendment every legislator wants to present — that would produce a chaotic overload. Instead, it’s the committees' job to pare away the minor amendments, as well as ones drawn up simply to score political points, and to present to the full House or Senate for a vote the major policy issues the pending bill raises. Then the bill would go to the floor, the issues it raises would be debated, and senators and congressmen would go on record with how they stand. This is not how either the Senate or the House has operated for a long time."
In recent years, fights, filibusters and the like have "become wearingly familiar to Americans" and led to "the alarming deterioration of Congress' standing as a democratic institution," Hamilton observes. "All of this has happened because the majority has chosen not just to overrule the minority, but to keep things easier by preventing it from bringing up its concerns for debate."
The veteran statesman declares, "What has been missing in all this is basic fairness -- and the realization that it is a fundamental part of what Congress should be about. If you give each party a fair and ample hearing, allow it to bring forward key amendments that are important to its members, and actually permit Congress to consider the issues of the day, the proceedings don't just benefit the legislative process, they also allow the American people to learn from the policy debate." (at left: Hamilton speaks with students in the hallway of DePauw's East College)
The column concludes, "So the Senate is to be commended for taking a break from the partisan wars. Let’s hope it lasts, and that the House follows its example. We now have an entire generation of politicians on Capitol Hill who’ve known little besides the frustration and anger of 'let's ram it through' politics, and they need a chance to learn what fair process looks like -- and how much they might be able to get done if they allow it to flourish."
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Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. On March 15, he'll return to DePauw to address "The U.S. Role in the World After Afghanistan and Iraq" in a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture. Details of the event, which takes place in Meharry Hall of historic East College and is free and open to the public, can be found in this article.Back