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"Hard Choices" Require Lawmakers Willing to Take a Stand, Writes Lee Hamilton '52

August 23, 2011

93515August 23, 2011, Greencastle, Ind. — "If you were paying attention to the end-game of the debt-ceiling negotiations, you may have noticed something interesting," begins a newspaper op-ed by Lee H. Hamilton, former congressman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University. "For all the partisan division over the details, there was agreement on one point: It's safest politically to defer hard choices to the last possible moment -- and maybe avoid them altogether."

The veteran statesman notes, "Democrats and Republicans offered proposals that avoided the details of cutting budgets or increasing revenues. They suggested commissions and committees that would make the hard choices for them; they favored caps on spending, without saying how caps would be enforced; they floated the idea that the president could unilaterally raise the debt ceiling, allowing Congress to avoid the entire problem; they favored voting on a balanced-budget amendment, which is a way of telling voters you're for a balanced budget without actually being held accountable 89666for the hard choices that produce one. There's nothing new here, of course. Politicians love to find creative ways to avoid resolving difficult policy questions." 

That's especially true when it comes to budgetary matters, Hamilton writes. "Sometimes, I think the smartest people in Washington are those who devise ways of sidestepping the substantive -- but difficult -- choices legislators should make. After all, politics is fundamentally about the challenge of setting priorities, nowhere more so than in a budget. But once you make a choice, you inevitably alienate one or more constituencies. Politicians don't like to do this. So it is not surprising that they love to give you a process answer to questions seeking hard, substantive choices."

The Democrat who served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and later co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group asserts, "as a voter, you have both the right and the responsibility to not let political leaders off the hook when they're avoiding making a choice. 2974If they tell you they fought for a line-item veto or a balanced-budget amendment, ask specifically what they would cut. When they trumpet that they stood up to the president on the War Powers Act, ask them what we should be doing in Libya."

The column concludes, "Lawmaking should be about making hard choices. Don't let our lawmakers avoid them." (at left: Hamilton visits with DePauw students in the hallway of historic East College)

Read the complete essay at the South Bend Tribune's website.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He returned to DePauw on March 15 to address "The U.S. Role in the World After Afghanistan and Iraq" in a Timothy and Sharon Ubben Lecture.  A summary including video clips can be accessed here.

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