The American public has lost patience with Washington. The question is, now what?
Congress is unable to do its job. It displays neither competence nor responsibility. It lurches — reeling from crisis to crisis, each one self-manufactured in an effort to postpone the reckoning from some earlier crisis. It shut the government down over a temporary budget. Now it’s threatening the financial credibility of the U.S. government and the security and safety of the American people. Three years of last-minute spending decisions have culminated in a television standoff with no actual negotiations.
Too many members of Congress reject the notion that accommodation and time-honored procedures allow them to fulfill their responsibilities to the American people. They use their legislative skill to engage in brinksmanship, rather than address the country’s fundamental problems. Economic growth? Creating jobs? Putting the federal budget on a sustainable path? Don’t look to Congress. They’re too busy coming up with the next short-term tactic to confront the other side. Every day they dither, they keep the government from addressing the nation’s real problems.
Even worse, they’ve managed to raise real questions in this country and abroad about whether our system of government can work. Are we saddled with a national legislature paralyzed by unending conflict? Are we capable of tackling our major problems? We are on the road to a government that cannot plan, a country shackled by perpetual uncertainty, and a loss of faith in our institutions both at home and abroad.
We do not have to continue down that road, but we do have to confront a core problem. The political center in Congress has weakened to the point of ineffectiveness, if not near-irrelevance.
That’s fine with some people in Washington, who are comfortable with gridlock and don’t think its consequences will be dire. Our government’s inability to deal with problems, they argue, is good — a government that’s able to act, they believe, creates more problems than it solves.
Likewise, some people acknowledge polarization as a problem, but blame it on an electorate that prefers a divided government, split between the parties. All I can say is that divided government in the past — think Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill — didn’t keep Congress from creatively addressing national challenges. Divided government is not easy, but it is not unusual, and it can work.
Politicians don’t deserve all the blame. Voters share responsibility: more people have to turn out to vote. The more people who vote, the better the chances to strengthen the political center — that is, moderates and pragmatists. That’s because low turnout brings out the most ideologically intense voters, who in turn reward the most polarizing candidates. A Congress more representative of the American people rests on expanding efforts to convince people to vote, and beating back the barriers to voting.
The second solution lies with members of Congress. Contemplating a government shutdown, a Kentucky congressman recently explained his stance by saying, “All that really matters is what my district wants.” This is not an uncommon view, but it’s a distressingly limited one. Our system depends on members who believe it’s also their responsibility to lead and inform voters, who are willing to weigh the national interest, as well as parochial concerns, and who have confidence in our system to resolve political differences.
In other words, we need members of Congress devoted to making the system work. We need men and women in office who understand that when the voters give us a divided government, they have no choice but to accept the distribution of power and work with it, regardless of what they wish were the case. We need legislators who realize that those on the other side feel just as passionately and deserve their respect, and who are committed to finding a solution to our problems.
We change laws in our democracy and solve our most difficult issues in this country not by bringing government to a halt, but by fighting out the issues before the voters in an election. At the end of the day, we have to move the country forward — and we need to elect members of Congress who are willing and able to do that.
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.
The American public has lost patience with Washington. The question is, now what?
FLASHPOINT: Energy bill a no-brainer target for Pence’s veto pen
Indiana has, for many years, wrestled with the question of what policy, if any, to pursue to advance new, alternative visions of how we deal with waste, move around and grow our food. Fortunately, we’ve seen some tangible signs of progress in the Indiana General Assembly with respect to recycling, mass transit and local food systems.
READERS' FORUM: March 16, 2014
• Time for change in assessor office
• Are Indiana’s chemical storage tanks safe?
• Voters of Indiana Thinking carefully about health care
• Put an end to costly primaries
• Founders understood representation rights
• What about bridge?
• Young people don’t know rules
• So many words, so little space
READERS' FORUM: March 14, 2014
• ISU officers should stay on campus
• Good reasons why guns are needed
• Salute to Jake
READERS' FORUM: March 13, 2014
• Celebrating the Girl Scouts
• Challenging the politicians
- READERS' FORUM: March 12, 2014
READERS' FORUM: March 11, 2014
• Meat-free path to the fountain of youth
• Faulty point?
READERS' FORUM: March 10, 2014
• Our government’s heart and soul
• A plea for more give and take
Readers’ Forum: March 9, 2014
Mardi Gras great event for Swope
EPA regs will cause energy bills to soar
Please pray for Ukraine innocents
Sinful thinking on road to hell
Liberty — or licentiousness
People will not always agree
Botched chance at leadership
- Readers’ Forum: March 7, 2014
Readers’ Forum: March 6, 2014
Utilities do need tighter regulation
Great work by TV sports staff
- Readers’ Forum: March 5, 2014
Readers’ Forum: March 4, 2014
Lunatic ravings of the far right
Let IRS take the bullying pledge
Readers’ Forum: March 3, 2014
Social workers honor profession
Readers’ Forum: March 2, 2014
Candle still burns at St. Ann’s Clinic
Thanks to all at Sarah Scott
How should we define marriage?
An argument of science and law
Chance to expand your knowledge
Excellent service from paper carrier
Central time zone makes more sense
Summer adult baseball league for all ages
Recognizing that all people matter
More selfish opposition to Common Core
- Readers’ Forum: Feb. 28, 2014
READERS' FORUM: Feb. 27, 2014
• Unfair criticism of electric utility
- Readers' Forum: Feb. 26, 2014
Readers’ Forum: Feb. 25, 2014
Group to rival The Beatles?
HJR-3 opponents afraid of the truth
Readers’ Forum: Feb. 24, 2014
Declaration of specific gender should never occur
Say no to alcohol at the State Fair
Protect yourself against bad food
Warm appreciation for support staff
Merit in approach
READERS' FORUM: Feb. 23, 2014
• A specimen of bad policy
• And up it goes
• It is past time to talk about rape, sex assault
• Religion is best spread peacefully
• Fugitive thoughts on a winter day
• America taking steps backward
• Being respectful, not anonymous
• Kind help on a cold morning
• Let us throw another stone on the pile
FLASHPOINT: Local control over the business personal property tax good option
I have a tremendous respect for Indiana’s local leaders.
FLASHPOINT: Did legislators place bad bet on Common Core?
A comedian once observed that the reason they call it “horse sense” is because horses don’t bet on people.
- Readers' Forum: Feb. 21, 2014
READERS' FORUM: Feb. 20, 2014
• Take another look at Terre Haute
• The state that adapts, adopts
- READERS' FORUM: Feb. 19, 2014
Readers’ Forum: Feb. 18, 2014
Founders were indeed ‘devout’
Firm definition is what we need
All handouts equal
Readers’ Forum: Feb. 17, 2014
Utility billing process unfair
Voters must demand court information
FLASHPOINT: Manufactured statistics, exaggerated claims make meth battle more difficult
Indiana has many societal problems. One of the most serious is the use of methamphetamine. Meth destroys families, ruins lives and costs taxpayers millions of dollars in law enforcement and meth cleanup efforts.
READERS FORUM: Feb. 16, 2014
• Wrong direction on income issues
• Vet, staff at Brown gave caring service
• Worried about governor’s words
• Drying up stream of public support
• We have passed the tipping point
• Making sure the poor get poorer
• It’s all relative
• Support needed for Catholic school
• Great response from center
- READERS' FORUM: Feb. 14, 2014
- More Letters Headlines
- FLASHPOINT: Energy bill a no-brainer target for Pence’s veto pen