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Lee Hamilton: It's time to restore Congress to its rightful place in government

Lee Hamilton spent 34 years in the U.S. Congress, and he retains a deep affection for the institution -- and frustration that it has sunk so far from what the Founding Fathers intended.

He analyzes what went wrong, and charts a path for restoring Congress to its rightful place, in his new book Strengthening Congress, published by Indiana University Press.

Hamilton image

Photo by Aaron Bernstein

Lee Hamilton visited IU Bloomington in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, which he directs.

Print-Quality Photo

"Whether Congress reasserts itself and lives up to its constitutional responsibilities isn't just a matter for academics to discuss," he writes. "It matters deeply to all of us."

Hamilton, who represented southern Indiana in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 1999, elaborated on his theme last week during a two-day visit to IU Bloomington for a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, which he directs.

He was the featured speaker for IU's Robert G. Gunderson Forum in Rhetoric and Public Culture, took part in a panel discussion Congress with IU faculty members and Indiana journalists, ate lunch with students in IU Bloomington's new Political and Civic Engagement program, spoke to political science classes and hosted a dinner marking the Center on Congress anniversary.

The Center on Congress helps inform the public in a variety of ways, including newspaper op-eds, radio commentaries, Web site articles and brochures, teaching materials, conferences, books, television spots, and videos and interactive learning programs for students.

Hamilton founded the center because he felt there was a need for a nonpartisan institution to educate young people and adults about the crucial role of the legislative branch, and to equip them with the knowledge and skills to be active and effective in revitalizing American democracy.

And 10 years outside of Congress -- during which he served as co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission and directs the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington -- have only reinforced that belief.

He writes in Strengthening Congress that he is puzzled that members of Congress have willingly ceded the institution's power to the presidency. "For our system to work, Congress needs to balance the president. And if it hands him any power with one hand, it needs to exert greater oversight with the other," he says. "That has not been happening."

Hamilton argues that Congress needs to do more than tinker with the federal budget, and that it should insist on its constitutional authority over war-making, take responsibility for initiating policy and exercise real and honest oversight over the executive branch.

A key step, he writes, is restoring the deliberative process, in which Congress, through its committees, weighs the facts and debates policy. He decries reliance on half-truths and spin in Capitol Hill debates, increased partisanship, the loss of collegiality among members and the use of tools such as massive "omnibus bills," in which unrelated measures are crammed together into must-pass legislation.

"Democracy is first and foremost about process," he writes. "The Founders understood that how we reach a result matters."

Hamilton finds no easy cure for what ails the system, but he puts his faith in an informed citizenry that will insist on a well-functioning Congress. He provides "Ten Commandments of Good Citizenship," calling on citizens to vote, be informed, communicate with their representatives, and join with organizations that share their views about government.

For more about the Center on Congress, see http://www.centeroncongress.org.