News From Terre Haute, Indiana


July 31, 2011

FLASHPOINT: Let’s help lawmakers with their impossible task

WASHINGTON — Recently, the Pew Research Center released a poll gauging public sentiment on the nation’s three big entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Most Americans believe the programs are in trouble and need to be completely rebuilt or changed substantially. But an even stronger majority wants the programs’ benefits to be left alone.

In other words, Americans want change, but only if it doesn’t threaten their favorite programs. Members of Congress often hear the same on the deficit: Constituents demand action, but they don’t want Medicare or Social Security touched.

Now, let’s say you’re a member of Congress trying to tackle the deficit. You’ve spent time looking into the matter, so you know a few things: You know that most Americans believe we can reduce the deficit by taking steps like cutting foreign aid, even though in reality foreign aid accounts for just 0.6 percent of the budget. You know that most Americans don’t want tax increases, but you also know that the only way to make major progress on the deficit is to find new revenues and to tackle entitlements. What do you do?

You do what lawmakers have been doing for years when confronted by voters’ contradictory impulses: You give your constituents most of what they want (after all, you want to get re-elected), and you hope somehow it will all work out. And if Washington ties itself in knots trying to untangle the American people’s competing and contradictory messages, you sympathize with voters who express outrage at the mess on Capitol Hill, even as you privately shake your head that your constituents’ demands hand you the impossible task of providing more with less.

Ordinary Americans, who in the course of busy lives might not have the time to delve deeply into complex public-policy issues, aren’t the only ones delivering contradictory messages. David Leonhardt, a New York Times business columnist, recently pointed out that sophisticated lobbying organizations often talk one way in general terms, but when it comes to specifics, they press hard in the opposite direction.

He singled out the Business Roundtable for using anti-deficit rhetoric while “it consistently lobbies for a higher deficit” in the form of corporate tax breaks and infrastructure spending.

But the criticism applies equally to all the groups that lobby to help themselves and their members, usually through specific tax cuts or spending initiatives, while expressing concern over the deficit.

Legislators are constantly fielding demands for government action, each defensible on its own, that when taken together add up to an out-of-control budget.

But I think that we, as citizens, can help lawmakers get to a fiscally responsible result.

How? By recognizing the impossible task we have given them and taking on some of the burden ourselves.

I’m not arguing that we need to familiarize ourselves so intimately with the budget that we can decide whether this weapons program or that highway project deserves cutting.

But certainly we can learn to look at the big picture, to understand that cutting the deficit demands hard decisions and difficult tradeoffs, and that even some of our most desired programs need to be reconsidered.

We can do the basic work asked of us by our democracy: Learn our facts, know what’s fact and what’s opinion, keep a broad perspective, understand the overall problem legislators must resolve, remember that what’s good for us might not be good for our neighbors, and think through the implications of our positions.

As for legislators, they need to get past being cynical about the American people, believing that we can’t tolerate bad news and that we turn a deaf ear to complexity. In my experience, when you present people with a reasonable argument — for instance, you can’t make meaningful progress on the deficit without addressing entitlement programs and the need for more tax revenues — most of them appreciate what you’re trying to do. Lawmakers need to treat their constituents more like adults, not always agree to their requests. They need to explain the problem and its possible solutions, and then make a decision.

If both sides — legislators and citizens — do their parts, maybe we can make the impossible task manageable.


Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
Latest News Poll
AP Video
Police: Prostitute Linked to 2nd Death Chimp-attack Victim Lobbies Congress Obama Responds to Hecklers on Immigration FIFA Rejects Suarez Appeal Against Biting Ban Israeli-Palestinian Tensions, Attacks Escalate Kim Kardashian Hits Up Valentino Show in Paris More Immigrants Detained Along Rio Grande Thousands Attend NYC Firefighter's Funeral Art of Haitian Machete Fighting Revived Neighbors Mourn Killing of Texas Family Soft Robot Fish Lead New Wave of Robotics World Cup Final Pits Argentina Against Germany Raw: Australia Hosts Annual Beer Can Regatta Robots Gearing Up for Their Own 'World Cup' Raw: Funeral in Gaza for Family of 8 'Game of Thrones' Leads Emmy Nominees Rockets Fired From Lebanon Hit Israel Police: Prostitute Accused in Overdose Death Diaz and Segel Strip Off for 'Sex Tape' Raw: Rescuers Push Beached Whale Back to Ocean
NDN Video
LeBron James returning to Cleveland - @TheBuzzeronFOX Glee Star Becca Tobin's Boyfriend Matt Bendik Found Dead in Hotel Obama Responds to Hecklers on Immigration ScarJo Channels Marilyn Monroe Aerial fish restocking in Utah Tiny Hamsters Who Ate Burritos are Back for a Tiny Hedgehog's Party Watch Kelly Ripa Get Soaked! 'Referee' Hands Out Yellow Cards for Social Faux Pas in NYC 2014 Emmy Nominees: 8 Snub Shockers Emma Watson Is Va-Va-Voom in Valentino 7 Infamous Sports Blowouts Argentina tops Holland in World Cup semifinals News flush: Japanese toilet exhibition making a splash Emmy Nominations: What to Watch For 'Game of Thrones' Leads 66th Emmy Awards Nominations Photographic 'Proof' That LeBron Is Leaving Miami - @TheBuzzeronFOX Elephant Pool Party at The Oregon Zoo Must-See! Berry and Fallon Form Human Hamster Wheel Pilot buys pizzas for travelers delayed by storm Klose nets record, Germany rout Brazil 7-1

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
  • -


    March 12, 2010