One More Vote to Fix Congress

Posted November 9, 2009 at 5:30pm

Congress scores poorly in its performance review. At least that’s the opinion of Lee Hamilton in his new book, “Strengthening Congress.—

Hamilton, a Democrat who represented Indiana’s 9th district from 1965 to 1999, has outlined several ways that Congress has meandered from the objectives of the Founding Fathers. Hamilton writes that the executive branch has systematically increased its powers, encroaching on legislation that should be the responsibility of Congress. He specifically emphasizes that Congress has conceded to the president its responsibilities to declare war and develop the federal budget and the national agenda.

“A Congress that reasserts its prerogatives as a co-equal branch of government, that insists on robust oversight of the executive branch, that sets its own agenda as well as responds to the agenda of the president, that exercises the powers given it by our Constitution when it comes to declaring war and deciding how the government will spend its money — this would not be a Congress that weakens the president, but rather one that strengthens our democracy,— Hamilton writes.

Hamilton, author of 2004’s “How Congress Works and Why You Should Care,— believes that a weakened Congress compromises democracy and endangers constitutional freedoms.

According to Hamilton, Congress was established to be the voice of the people and a check on the president to ensure that no big decisions would be made by a single person but by consensus of a governing body of 535 legislators who operate in the best interest of all citizens of the United States.

Hamilton criticizes the constant use of omnibus bills that join several appropriation bills into one laden with thousands of pages. He says most of these bills land on lawmakers’ desks with just a day or less to review it before they must vote on it. Because of these undemocratic practices, Hamilton argues that many things slip through the cracks, which “offers plenty of opportunity for mischief.—

The essence of Congress is its responsibility to deliberate and never be hasty in deciding on laws that govern the land, he writes. Debates, however, should be based on facts and not “half-truths— or political spins to advance a party’s agenda. Hamilton repeats the infamous comment by former Rep. Earl Landgrebe (R-Ind.) during Watergate: “My mind is made up,— he said. “Don’t confuse me with the facts.—

Amid all the mishaps of Congress, Hamilton finds areas to praise, stating that most Congressmen are honest. But, stricter ethics enforcement is needed, he says.

Hamilton, who is the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Center on Congress at Indiana University-Bloomington, recommends that Congress go back to the basics and look to the Constitution. And lastly, he suggests that citizens get involved with their government to keep the legislators who are supposed to be working for them on task.