On August 10, 2016

What does Congress need? Your attention!

By Lee H. Hamilton
Now that the conventions are over, I know that all eyes are on the fall presidential campaign. But I’m going to ask you to shift your focus a bit, to Congress. Don’t do it as a favor to me. Do it as a favor to the country.
Congress is in the midst of a seven-week break. What it left undone is astonishing: dealing with the Zika virus, immigration, tax reform, gun legislation and, oh yes, the budget.
We’re all tired of this. I don’t think a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me, “What can we do about it?” So let me tell you.
First, the system can work. But it takes skill to forge consensus, make tradeoffs, assuage egos, and accommodate the vastly different points of view that are inevitable in a diverse nation. And it takes determination to overcome the inevitable setbacks and stumbling blocks in order to govern.
This requires members who have a sense of responsibility to the country and to the institution envisioned by our founders—who understand their special role in making Congress an effective institution, and who know how to construct a bill and get it passed.
Many current members of Congress have never seen these qualities in action, but the committee rooms and chambers they inhabit certainly have. Sam Rayburn of Texas brought rural electrification into being and transformed the lives of millions. George Fallon of Maryland shaped the interstate highway system, which in one way or another has affected every American life. Countless members over the years contributed to shaping our country—men and women who were not well known but who took their responsibilities seriously and believed the institution simply had to work.
My point is, we’ve had a functional Congress before. That means we can produce one again.
But I choose those words—“we” and “produce”—carefully. As a voter, you have to judge whether a candidate has the will and the capability to reassert the role of Congress, to get legislation passed, and to work with colleagues who don’t necessarily agree with them.
Voters have legitimate reasons to be discouraged about Congress. But they should remember the recent past, which shows that with the right kind of legislators, Congress can get things done—and they should begin to reject politicians who have proven again and again that they can’t get anything done.
Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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