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Lee Hamilton '52 on Why Governing is So Difficult Today

July 28, 2013

Lee Hamilton 008s"If you want to know why passing congressional legislation has gotten so difficult, here are two numbers to remember: 5 and 532. They illustrate a great deal about Congress today," according to Lee Hamilton.  In a newspaper op-ed, the veteran statesman and 1952 DePauw University graduate writes, "When I served in the House decades ago and the 'farm bill' came up, stitching a successful piece of legislation together depended on getting five organizations to find common ground ... This year, Congress is struggling to get a farm bill through. After the House sent the first version down to defeat, no fewer than 532 organizations signed a letter to Speaker John Boehner asking him to bring a bill back to the floor as soon as possible. The array of groups was striking. The Farm Bureau signed on, but so did avocado growers and peach canners, beekeepers and archers, conservationists of all sorts, and huge businesses like Agri-Mark."

A Democrat who represented Indiana for 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, Hamilton adds, "Not every major piece of legislation before Congress is so complicated, but the farm bill is a perfect example of how tough it has become to get a major bill through, with so many competing interests and so much money at stake. Everything on Capitol Hill's plate this year -- US Capitol side afrom immigration reform to gun control to the upcoming debt ceiling fight -- requires legislative language that a wide array of interest groups can agree to. This would be daunting but attainable if Congress operated the way it once did. But it doesn't."

Congress, Hamilton observes, is "a legislatively challenged institution. The leaders on the Hill have fewer tools of persuasion than they once did. They abolished "earmarks," so they can no longer promise a bridge or a road to secure a vote, and they carry less respect and clout. The political parties that once helped enforce discipline can no longer do so, since politicians now often identify themselves with outside groups like the Tea Party rather than with their political party. With the rise of Super PACs, neither congressional leaders nor political parties have as much influence over fundraising -- and hence the "loyalty" it once imposed -- as they used to."

In Hamilton's view, "The country needs to confront basic questions about the $16 billion annual subsidy and heavy trade protection accorded to agriculture -- when fewer than 1 percent of Americans are farmers and farming has become a hugely corporate industry. Likewise, with one in six AmericansLee Hamilton Basketball DePauw now receiving food stamps, we need a real debate about the food stamp program, which makes up 80 percent of the cost of the bill. In other words, we're not getting what we actually need, which is a real policy debate on the role of the government in agriculture. If Congress were working properly, this might have been possible. Increasingly, I fear it's beyond Capitol Hill's reach."

Access the complete column at the website of South Mississippi's Sun Herald.

A history major and basketball standout at DePauw, Lee H. Hamilton served as vice chair of the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group.  He is now director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. Hamilton has been a frequent visitor to DePauw over the years, and delivered an Ubben Lecture on March 15, 2011.

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