Budget Deal Illustrates "Exactly Backward" Legislative Process, Opines Lee Hamilton '52

Budget Deal Illustrates "Exactly Backward" Legislative Process, Opines Lee Hamilton '52

May 4, 2011

7485May 4, 2011, Greencastle, Ind. — The recent budget deal that led to $38 billion in spending cuts and averted a government shutdown had a serious flaw, in the view of Lee Hamilton, "the whole process got things exactly backward." In a newspaper op-ed, the veteran statesman and 1952 graduate of DePauw University writes, "The way Congress used to work, budgets were crafted by a series of committees holding public hearings and debating separate appropriation bills. There was the occasional last-minute surprise, of course, but for the most part the process was organized and transparent. Our elected representatives knew what was coming and had the opportunity to shape it, and the American people knew whom to hold accountable for what."

Hamilton continues, "This budget deal, on the other hand, was put together behind closed doors by a handful of people striving to meet a doomsday deadline, handed off to unelected staff and a few legislators to work out the details, and then presented to the bulk of Congress for a take-it-or-leave-it vote. In some instances, no one has admitted responsibility for last-minute maneuvers that changed established policy; they emerged from the black box of negotiations as if untouched by human hands. Call me old-fashioned, but I fail to see either the 'representative' or the 'democracy' parts of our representative democracy at work here."
Lawmakers didn't complain about being excluded from the process, the Democrat notes, saving their gripes for what the package contained. Of the "seat-of-the-pants style of legislating," Hamilton asserts, "This is no way to run a country, let alone a democracy."

He concludes, "There is an answer to all this, and it’s a return to the procedure for crafting budgets that Congress developed over many decades of experience -- committee hearings on individual spending bills, floor action  allowing for an orderly amendment process, open conference committees and then final votes in which every member knows precisely what he or she is voting on. That Congress has allowed itself to move so far from that time-honored process raises deeply disturbing questions about this government's ability to govern."

63887Access the complete essay at the website of the Appeal-Democrat of Marysville, California.
Lee H. Hamilton served 34 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, co-chaired the 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study group, and authored Strengthening Congress; How Congress Works and Why You Should Care and A Creative Tension: The Foreign Policy Roles of the President and Congress. He is currently director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.

Monday, Hamilton talked with Indianapolis radio station WIBC about the death of Osama bin Laden and its implications for the ongoing war on terror.

On March 15 the veteran statesman returned to DePauw 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.