Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Columns

March 13, 2014

LEE HAMILTON: Where Congress falls short ... and where it doesn't

We're frustrated folks can't make institution better.

(Continued)

Similarly, they undermine their ability to oversee the executive branch by conducting hearings for political gain rather than to scrutinize government activities or develop effective policy directives. Many of our representatives have become so reliant on their staff for knowledge about public policy and the details of federal agencies that in off-the-cuff debate they can be untethered and misinformed. Small wonder Congress has had trouble being productive. The days appear to be over when members of Congress strove to be masters of their subject matter and legislators in fact as well as in name.

Forced to spend so much time raising money and listening to well-heeled people and groups, they also seem to have trouble seeing current affairs from the perspective of ordinary people. They fall captive to the politics of any given issue, rather than thinking about the much harder question of how you govern a country with all its residents in mind. They don’t see the necessity, in a divided Congress and a divided country, of negotiation and compromise.

Congressional tradition has created a legislative process that should encourage fact-finding, searching for remedies, and finding common ground. It should not work solely by majority rule; decisions spring from consultation with many voices, balancing minority and majority views, and fair-minded process. This is not what today’s members of Congress do, however. Instead, they short-circuit the committee process; fail to do their homework; dwell on talking points put together by staff and others; give too much power to their leaders; pay too little attention to deliberation; allow insufficient opportunity to debate and vote on major policy amendments; and in general make a mess of the budget — the basic operating instructions for the government.

Process may not be everything, but good process enhances the chance of getting things right — and with each passing year, Congress forgets more and more about what good process looks like.

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