Those who know Congress best are shaking their heads

I had the good fortune last week to spend some time in Washington, D.C. with about a dozen former members of Congress. As you would expect, we got to talking about the current Congress. Very quickly it turned out that the same question was troubling all of us: Why is it held in such low public esteem?

We represented both parties and a variety of eras, and had a range of experience under our belts. But we all found ourselves chagrined by what we’ve been witnessing. You have to understand that most former members of Congress believe deeply in the value of the institution for American representative government. We might take opposite sides of particular policy debates, but on one point we all agree: we want the institution itself to succeed and thrive. These days, it’s doing neither.

For starters, we were hard-pressed to come up with any real accomplishments for this Congress. It did pass a revision to No Child Left Behind, and a controversial expansion of cyber-surveillance capabilities— which it slipped into a must-pass budget bill. It also took the entirely uncontroversial step of broadening sanctions on North Korea. But that’s pretty much it.

In the country at large, people are fretting about control of our borders, stagnant wages, college expenses, the cost of health care, the opioid addiction crisis, the spread of ISIS, the strengthening effects of climate change. The administration is trying to keep the Zika virus from gaining a foothold in this country, and congressional inaction has already caused Puerto Rico to default on one set of obligations, with a much bigger default looming— and doomed airline passengers to longer and longer waits as the TSA struggles. Yet on Capitol Hill, no one seems particularly concerned. Instead, its members left town to campaign.

This may be unfair, but I can’t help but think about my first year in Congress. We enacted 810 bills, including the passage of Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Water Quality Act, and setting up the Departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development. Not every year was like that, but the contrast is inescapable. Among the group of people

I was with last week— people who watch Congress closely— there was unanimity: this will go out as one of the least productive years in congressional history.

Worse, members show little interest in making Congress more productive. Our little group all remembered times when we, or our colleagues pushed reform efforts to make the institution work better— and were struck that current members aren’t doing so. Most Americans belong to some group or another that’s trying to accomplish change for the better and improve itself at the same time. Why would Congress be an outlier? But it is.

Some of the observations we shared last week are old hat. Congress is excessively partisan, with too many of its members highly distrustful of the other party and inclined to blame it for Capitol Hill’s ailments. As an institution, it seems incapable of ridding itself of the bad habits it’s gotten into: the reliance on omnibus bills and continuing resolutions; timidity in the face of presidential power; a marked reluctance to use the levers of congressional authority— especially control of the federal budget— to prod or check executive action.

Yet none of us believe this is irreversible. We are all convinced that strong leadership in Congress could make an immense difference. In the past, effective legislators on both sides of the aisle— as committee chairs and as caucus leaders— have left behind them a legacy of great accomplishment.

Democrat Emanuel Celler of New York and Republican William McCullough of Ohio joined forces to craft the Civil Rights Act of 1964; Democrat Wilbur Mills of Arkansas and Republican John Byrnes of Wisconsin together helped shape Medicare.

I won’t waste your time with a list of consummate legislators who were able to get things done. The point is simple: it may be a different time and legislative environment from 50 years ago, but strong leadership can make Congress work. On that, my former colleagues and I, Republicans and Democrats, found ourselves in full agreement.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Beyond transparency, we need accountability

Over more than three decades in Congress, I had the chance to question a lot of federal officials. Most of the time I wasn’t after anything dramatic — I just wanted to understand who was responsible for certain decisions. Want to know how often I got a straight answer? Almost never!

It was easily one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to ensure robust oversight of the government. Our representatives’ job, after all, is to help make government work better and you can’t do that if you don’t know whom to hold accountable for important decisions. This is a problem.

Accountability is essential to good governance. I’m not just talking about transparency” — that is, citizens’ ability to know what’s being done in our name. That’s important, but equally important is holding accountable those who made the decision to do it: ensuring that they are accountable to policy-makers, adhere to their obligations, follow the law, and that their actions are appropriate and responsive to the needs of the country.

This may be part and parcel of good governing, but it’s elusive. Accountability requires that officials step up and take responsibility for their decisions, and not try to shift that responsibility to others or to some ill-defined group. It requires unambiguous performance standards, clear codes of ethics, timely reporting, and acceptance of responsibility, especially with regard to budget or spending decisions.

It’s sustained by procedures that encourage responsible stewardship of public funds and a focus on correcting inefficiencies and poor performance. And above all, it rests on robust oversight and review of officials’ performance, not only within the executive branch, but also by Congress and the media. So how do we get there?

The first step is to make information available to the public, especially when it comes to budgeting. Government performance rests on how it spends the public’s money.

Yet making sure that people see and hear what government is doing only promotes transparency. It’s taking the next step, and ensuring that there’s a clear command and control structure, that promotes accountability. Without clarity on who’s in charge of what and who’s responsible for which decisions, it becomes too easy for officials to remain unanswerable for their actions.

Clear lines of authority mean nothing unless the deciding officials are identified and measured against what actually takes place. No official, in other words, should be without accountability for his or her decisions, which means that executive agencies and Congress alike need to perform regular and robust oversight. Regular audits focused on inefficiencies, waste and poor performance are critical. Officials need to give a full account of what they do and the decisions they make.

As a nation, we face a growing issue on this front when it comes to federal contractors — that is, the private workforce doing jobs for federal agencies. This is a problem because it creates an accountability vacuum. There are very few mechanisms for holding contractors responsible for their errors, abuses and missteps.

Which is why the media is as important as Congress and internal government overseers. We as citizens depend on the media to tell us what’s going on in the entire system: within the bureaucracy, in the behavior of contractors, and among legislators who ought to be overseeing both, but often they don’t. This is a key public responsibility, and the press needs to be staffed and have access to the resources to do a good job — which, these days, is increasingly rare.

Accountability, in other words, is key to good government. All I wanted to know in those congressional hearings was who made the decision about the public’s business. Is that too much to ask?

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

To find hope, look around you

These are very unhappy times in Washington, D.C. Relations between the executive and legislative branches are not just sour, but corrosive. The Republican-led Senate has declared it will simply ignore a presidential nomination to the Supreme Court. Both houses have announced that they will flout a tradition going back to the 1970s, and refuse to hold a hearing for the President’s budget director to present the White House’s federal budget proposal. Partisan paralysis and game playing on Capitol Hill have become a hallmark of these times, as has the evident distaste our nation’s leaders feel for one another.

It would be understandable to give in to despair, and a lot of Americans have done so. I have not, and for a simple reason: in our system there is always hope. Why? Because our representative democracy rests finally not on what politicians in Washington or in our state capitals do, but on what our citizens do.

The bedrock assumption of representative government is that Americans will make discriminating judgments about politicians and policies, and shoulder their responsibility as citizens to improve their corner of the world. The remarkable thing is, they often do.

Even better, the less-than-admirable stumbling blocks that we’ve come to identify with politics— confrontation, obstructionism and divisiveness— are rarely present. Public dialogues may get heated, but they don’t often descend to the level of bitterness and obstinacy we see these days in Washington.

More than anything else, what you see when ordinary Americans decide to get involved in a public issue is their common sense and good judgment, their fundamental decency, and their remarkable sense of fairness. They recognize there are differences of opinion and that they have to be sorted through. They make decisions by and large based on hope, not fear or despair.

The sense that comes through when you watch Americans at work on public issues is their overwhelming desire to improve their community. Often this is reflected in concrete projects — a new bridge, a better school, a badly needed sewer system. But you can also see it in many people’s cry for candidates who will set narrow interests and excessive partisanship aside, and work to improve the quality of life for all Americans.

While ordinary citizens may not know all there is to know about a given public policy issue, I was constantly impressed while in office at how much I learned from my constituents. We often think of representative government as a process in which the elected official educates constituents, but the reverse is usually even more the case. Americans may think that politics is filled with messiness and noise, but at the end of the day they understand the need for deal-making, compromise and negotiation— and that to achieve change, they have to work through the system we have, which means educating and pushing political leaders.

This is why I have an underlying confidence in representative government. Americans are pragmatic. They recognize the complexity of the challenges we face, understand there are no simple answers to complex problems, and do not expect to get everything they want. They see that what unites us— a common desire to improve our communities and create better opportunities for families and individuals— is stronger than what divides us. My confidence in the system is built on citizens exercising their right to make this a stronger, fairer country.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Government needs to work better

Whoever wins next November’s presidential election, it’s a sure bet that at some point he or she will vow to set the federal government on the straight and narrow. Maybe the new President will even resort to the time-honored pledge to create a government “as good as the people.” It’s a bracing sentiment. But you’ll want to take it with a grain of salt.

Our history is filled with remarkable government accomplishments. Our involvement in World War II and hands-on approach to the postwar reconstruction of Europe and Japan, our role in ending the Cold War, the interstate highway system, extending the right to vote to all our citizens, federal research and support for ending diseases such as polio. There’s a long list of crucially important efforts the federal government has executed well.

Yet every American ought also to be alarmed by an expanding list of missteps and blunders. In a report last month for the highly capable and too-little-noticed Volcker Alliance— whose goal is to improve government effectiveness— NYU Professor Paul C. Light drew attention to what he calls “a shocking acceleration in the federal overnment’s production of highly visible mistakes, miscalculations and maladministration.” He went on to say, “[T]he aging bureaucracy can no longer guarantee faithful execution of all the laws, and it has become increasingly unpredictable in where and how it will err.”

A moment’s reflection will call to mind a sobering litany of failures: the inability to stop the 9/11 attacks; the confused, inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina; the even more confused response to the 2008 financial collapse; shortfalls in the care of our veterans; bridge collapses, mining accidents, and other failures caused by inadequate funding for inspection and regulation; the breaches in White House security; the fact that we’ve now been fighting a war on terror for nearly 15 years with no end in sight. It’s enough to make the staunchest champion of government action lose hope.

These failures can occur for many reasons: muddled policy, insufficient resources, poor organization, lack of leadership, lack of skills, sometimes even outright misconduct. The question isn’t really what or who is to blame. It’s how we turn things around and reverse the accelerating pace of breakdowns.

To start, the executive and the legislative branches need to focus on the implementation of policy. A lot of hard work goes into its creation, both on Capitol Hill and in the agencies, but the sad truth is that much less attention goes to how it’s going to be carried out. This is largely in the hands of the President, but Congress has a crucial role to play both in crafting the law to account for how it will be implemented, and then in pursuing oversight afterward. Both branches need to pay attention to how they will assess effectiveness, anticipate problems, make sure that staffing is adequate, and provide necessary resources.

Second, if making policy today is complicated, so is implementing it. This means that we need skillful people within the government to carry it out. Let’s be blunt. You don’t want a second-rate lawyer negotiating arms control or trade agreements. You don’t want third-rate scientists defining drinking-water requirements. Getting things right means hiring good people, retaining them, and then making sure they’re held to account with well-conceived metrics.

Finally, we have to put an end to the politics that so often stymies policy. Too often these days, the losers of a policy debate immediately turn to torpedoing it. They block the filling of key positions, cut funding, twist the objectives, or impose hiring freezes. They block policy changes that would improve implementation, put unqualified executives in control or tolerate misconduct and confusion. Some government failures aren’t the result of muddled policy, lack of leadership, or incompetence; they’re the result of what amounts to calculated sabotage.

Most Americans want government to work well. We want it to enhance the quality of our lives and our communities. Arguments over the appropriate size of government are important, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is that when a policy is adopted, it needs to be executed effectively. Whoever our next President turns out to be, let’s hope he or she takes that charge seriously.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Dysfunction exacts a cost

Earlier this month, The Economist, a renowned British weekly, ran an editorial advocating an end to the U.S. dollar’s supremacy as the world’s chief currency. The magazine offered several economic motives and one supremely political one. “For how long,” its editors wrote, “will countries be ready to tie their financial systems to America’s fractious and dysfunctional politics?”

I want to be blunt here. Congress’s inaction on a host of important issues— its inability to deal with our problems— is doing real damage to our country. It undermines our ability to lead in the world and causes undue economic and social hardship at home.

What strikes me hardest about that sentence in The Economist is that it reflects a sobering truth: people both at home and abroad now accept that our current unworkable politics shows no sign of changing and could intensify. We are getting a reputation as a nation that cannot deal with many of its problems.

The truth is always complex. You will find plenty of mayors, governors, state legislators, and even federal officials who don’t have the luxury of gamesmanship; they confront problems and solve them, often with great creativity. Those who discount us forget that we have a deep bench.

Yet if you look ahead at the next few months, it’s hard to avoid a sinking feeling. The leadership battles put the Congress in even greater disarray just before a series of critical fiscal deadlines. Congress has to raise the debt ceiling by early November. It needs to craft a long-term budget deal. It has to come up with a multi-year plan for highway spending. It needs to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, which helps American businesses sell their goods overseas. It has to decide what to do with a series of tax breaks that are due to expire. These things will not happen without a great deal of turmoil.

That’s because congressional politics today are bewildering, free-swinging, unscripted, and unprecedented. I can’t figure out how so many members of Congress reached a point where they cannot accept the fundamental political reality of our times. You need 60 votes to move legislation in the Senate, along with 67 votes to override a veto in the Senate and 290 votes to do so in the House. With the White House controlled by one party and Congress controlled by the other, those numbers are the fundamental fact of legislative life. They force a choice on members of Congress: to protest, make speeches, and strike ideological positions; or to govern. Too many members are opting for the first choice.

Yet if we’re to get out of this mess, the starting point is to recognize the political reality of divided government. The parties have a right to their own hopes and aspirations, but they also need to take seriously the responsibility to govern. They need to find a way past the unhappiness and anger that are evident in the country at large.

Given the seriousness of our problems and the lack of progress on the policy agenda Congress is supposed to handle, there’s really only one way forward: through negotiation and compromise. This has never been easy— learning to compromise on the issues without compromising one’s own principles— but it’s especially challenging now, when I worry that striking a deal has become a lost art.

Still, certain steps seem obvious. The congressional leadership must let the Congress work its will. Members should be allowed to vote straightforwardly on the major policy issues of the day, without leadership manipulating the process to control the result. The House should reject the Hastert Rule, under which a majority of the majority caucus is required to bring a bill to the floor. And both houses need to stop the outrageous use of huge omnibus bills adopted by short cutting time-tested regular order procedures.

If Congress does not learn to compromise and negotiate, the country is headed for even deeper trouble than we are currently in. U.S. world leadership will slip, our ability to deal with economic and social issues at home will

deteriorate, and the electorate will become even more embittered. Our future is in Congress’s hands. It would be nice if they recognized it.

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

We face real challenges to representative democracy

People who care about the United States’ place in the world often fret about challenges to representative democracy from other countries. I’d contend that the more formidable challenge comes not from abroad, but from within.

For starters, it’s hard to make American representative democracy work. Our country is large, growing and astoundingly diverse by every definition of the term. To govern it, we rely on a bewildering array of branches and units of government, which means that to solve a problem you have to navigate a slow, untidy system.

Our challenges come at us with rapidity and mind-boggling complexity. They include racial and class divisions, the social and economic pressures confronting families, a strained public education system, a constant flow of complex foreign and economic policy questions. To deal with them, every level of our system needs to be at the top of its game.

Two of our basic governing institutions, Congress and the presidency, are struggling. Congress has adopted some unfortunate political and procedural habits: it governs by crisis, fails repeatedly to follow time-tested procedures that ensure accountability and fairness, panders to wealthy contributors, and too often erupts in excessive partisanship. There are glimmers that some members are willing to re-learn the legislative arts of negotiation, compromise, and consensus-building, but these need to be front and center, not an occasional hobby: in a government that reflects the American population, Congress cannot function effectively without these skills.

The presidency, too, faces challenges. The executive branch is bloated, has too many decision makers and bases to touch, lacks accountability, and desperately needs better, more effective management.

Moreover, the decades-long march toward increased presidential power at the expense of the legislative branch severely undercuts our constitutional system and raises the question of how far down this road can we go and still have representative democracy. There are valid reasons it has happened, especially because the modern world demands quick, decisive action but our system functions best when we have a strong president and a strong Congress who can interact, consult, and work together.

We face other challenges as well. Too much money is threatening the core values of a representative democracy. And too many Americans have become passive and disengaged from politics and policy; representative democracy is not a spectator sport.

Despite its challenges, our political system forms the core of American strength. It enshrines fundamental power in a body elected by the broad mass of the people, and is based solidly on the participation and consent of the governed. Allowed to work properly, it is the system most likely to produce policy that reflects a consensus among the governed. Above all, it has the capacity to correct itself and move on.

In other words, we don’t need to reinvent our system, but rather use its abundant strengths to find our way through our problems and emerge stronger on the other side.

It is not written in the stars that representative government will always prosper and prevail. It needs the active involvement of all of us, from ordinary voters to the president. Each of us must do our part.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

On voting… and not

The campaigning for next year’s elections is starting to draw more attention, and with it comes a focus on voters and their mood. Which is all well and good, but it leaves out of the equation one large bloc of citizens— people who are eligible to vote, but don’t. Over the years, a fair number of people I’ve encountered have confessed that they do not vote— and I often surprise them by pressing them on why they don’t. They give a multitude of reasons.

The most common is that they’re too busy, or that voting takes too much time. Plenty also say they’re turned off by politics, politicians, and anything having to do with government. “What difference does it make?” they’ll ask. Or they’ll argue that money has so corrupted the political system that they want no part of it.

There are also legitimate reasons: people are ill or disabled, they didn’t know where to vote or their polling place was hard to reach. Sometimes they didn’t meet their state’s registration deadline— which might be a month ahead of the election— or they ran into ID requirements that stymied them. On the whole, it didn’t take much to keep them away from the polling place.

Which, for many policy-makers, is of little concern. Some don’t worry about low voter turnout; they’re more focused on making sure voters are informed. Others are pushing to make it more difficult for eligible voters to vote, since their chief concern is to protect the integrity of the ballot and reduce fraud.

Still, plenty are deeply concerned about falling rates of voter participation— the 2014 elections saw the lowest turnout rate since 1942, according to the United States Election Project, which found that a mere 35.9 percent of the voting-eligible population cast ballots. They’re concerned because voting doesn’t just put office-holders in place and push policy in one direction or another. It also affirms the electoral system. When people don’t vote, they undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of our representative Democracy. The vigor of our system depends on the vote of each citizen. So what do we do about it?

My first recommendation is actually a note of caution. Generally speaking, Democrats have emphasized making ballot access easier; Republicans have focused on ballot integrity. Both need to be addressed if we’re to build the legislative support necessary to achieve needed changes in our electoral system. We have to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.

We need to modernize the system. Democracies like Australia and Canada invest

serious money in their election infrastructure and conduct widely acclaimed elections. Ours, by contrast, is fragile and uneven. We’ve already had one presidential election decided by courts on a question of failed infrastructure. More embarrassing cases will certainly occur. The aim of reforming the system is to make voting convenient, efficient, and pleasant, to make sure the mechanics work as they ought, and to ensure that disputes are handled fairly. This means that state governments, not localities, should be responsible for the accuracy and quality of voter lists and for educating the public about voting. Often, local governments have neither the expertise nor the funds to do this effectively.

Finally, there is the question of voter ID. It’s legitimate to ensure that a person presenting himself or herself at the voting site is the same one named on the voting list. But requiring an ID needs to be accompanied by aggressive efforts to find voters and provide free access to the voting booth. Instead, a lot of states that have instituted ID requirements have dismissed the idea that this imposes a responsibility to reach out to voters and make IDs available to those who can’t afford it. They’re subverting representative democracy.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Where the presidency is headed

Before the ins and outs of the 2016 presidential contest become a preoccupation for many of us, it seems a good time to step back and look at the office of the presidency for which so many candidates are vying. The presidency inherited by whoever wins next November will be substantially changed from the position his or her predecessors occupied a few decades ago.

The President is now the chief— and sometimes the sole — actor in American government. He far outweighs the other so-called “co-equal” branches. The media covers the White House extensively, and the other branches much less so. People don’t expect Congress or the Supreme Court to solve the country’s problems. Instead, they look to the President for initiatives, for remedies, and increasingly — and sadly — to serve as a de facto pastor to the nation when we confront a tragedy.

The branch that came first in our founders’ minds, Congress, is now of secondary importance. This has been a long, slow development, the result not so much of court cases, legislation, or even deliberate planning, but of countless decisions by congressional leaders that have handed power to the President so as to avoid tough decisions on Capitol Hill. There may be limitations imposed by the courts or public opinion, but the system of checks and balances that our system was supposed to operate under has been severely weakened.

Not even the press can hold the President to account any more, except under extraordinary circumstances. For one thing, it’s very hard to grill the President these days. The tradition of regular presidential news conferences has all but disappeared — and when the press corps does get a chance to ask questions, the White House carefully manages the event.

This makes it very hard to find a forum or a place where people outside the White House bubble, can ask the President probing questions and press for thorough explanations of a policy or problem. I’ve long favored a regular question-and-answer period in Congress that would be publicly televised — a chance for the President’s supporters and opponents to probe his or her thinking. At a minimum, we should get regular and extensive press conferences. Instead, the only media-related event that happens regularly is the morning meeting among White House staff to figure out how to get the President on the evening news in the most favorable light. It’s a form of manipulation that greatly reduces accountability.

Which is a shame not just for the obvious reasons, but also because the federal government cries out for more accountability these days. Whoever is President next, he or she would do well to pay more attention to effective management of the vast executive establishment than has been the practice until now. Otherwise, the breakdowns in the operation of government to which we’ve grown accustomed will continue.

That’s because government today is strained at every level: The population is getting older, health care costs are high, our fiscal problems never end, challenges such as threats to our security, environmental degradation, and poverty abound. Highly complex problems pile up with great rapidity, and government needs highly skilled people to deal with them.

Every President comes into office insisting he’ll spend a lot of time on making the government work better, but is invariably distracted by the rush of events. The last serious effort to do so was Al Gore’s, when he was Bill Clinton’s vice president. Some progress might get made, but for the most part presidents don’t deal with the issue in a sustained, comprehensive, coherent way.

This is not entirely the President’s fault. The Congressional Research Service estimates that 1,200 to 1,400 positions are subject to confirmation by the Senate, and Presidents often have a hard time getting the people they want into position. That needs to change, perhaps by requiring an up-or-down vote on a nominee within 90 days.

To sum it up, while the President’s accumulation of power is a serious problem in the big picture, it nonetheless is a fact. We ought to make it easier for him to get the people he needs in a position to make government work more effectively.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

They’re off and running

The presidential election is 16 months away, but already we’re smack in the middle of the usual media scrum of campaign coverage, prognostication, and strategizing by many of us who have nothing much to do with the real campaigns. I’ve been following the rhetoric of both parties, and there are a few points that stand out enough to tell us something about what we have to look forward to.

To begin, the country is not in a sunny mood. There is a sense that America is adrift, that we don’t quite know how to deal with the forces of globalization, technological change, economic uncertainty, or terrorism. Americans are looking for a leader who can restore confidence.

The economy in particular weighs on ordinary Americans’ minds. There’s widespread agreement that the growing economy has done very little to help people of ordinary income — not just in recent years, but really for the past generation.

Still, the improving economy may be responsible for one interesting aspect of the campaign: Republicans thus far have made national security a centerpiece issue, though this could change with world events. They are also focusing on the budget deficit, cutting taxes, and, as always, pulling back on the reach of government. They want to eliminate Obamacare as well as cut Medicaid, move Medicare to a voucher system, repeal the estate tax, cut domestic programs, roll back financial reform and efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminate further consumer protections.

Still, the improving economy may be responsible for one interesting aspect of the campaign: Republicans thus far have made national security a centerpiece issue — perhaps responding to polling that shows that Republican voters consider it a key factor in deciding among the plethora of GOP candidates. This emphasis could change with world events, but right now candidates are pressing the argument that President Obama is not tough enough when it comes to foreign policy; they don’t think highly of his leadership in the world, and in particular want to see more of a military buildup. It’s a little less clear what they want to do with that military power.

Of course, national security and terrorism aren’t the only issues that figure prominently in the Republicans’ array of issues. So do the budget deficit, cutting taxes, and, as always, pulling back on the reach of government. They want to eliminate Obamacare as well as to cut Medicaid, move Medicare to a voucher system, repeal the estate tax, cut domestic programs, roll back financial reform and efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminate further consumer protections.

For the Democrats, meanwhile, addressing income inequality, maintaining social security and other entitlements, improving the country’s decaying infrastructure, job creation, college costs, immigration and energy reform, and climate change all loom large. They want to preserve Obamacare, move forward on climate change, retain taxes on high-income earners, and preserve the financial reforms of the last decade.

With no incumbent president, many candidates, no clear favorite, and major differences in outlook on which issues to address and how to address them, this will be in the grand American political tradition a lively, contentious, long, expensive, maybe even pivotal election. Who gets to answer the biggest questions we face — the appropriate U.S. role in the world, what the reach and purpose of government should be, which path will best secure Americans’ prosperity and world peace — is up for grabs. We’ve got an interesting election ahead as a nation. I’m looking forward to it. I hope you are, too.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University; Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

Congress says, “War Powers? What War Powers?”

A few weeks ago, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia made a small splash in the press when he took Congress to task for failing to authorize our nation’s ongoing war against Islamic militants.

“The silence of Congress in the midst of this war is cowardly and shameful,” he said. “[T]his Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama’s use of executive power… allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined and unchecked.”

Those were strong words, meant to spur Congress to action. Yet after a day or two, they sank without a trace. No one in the media picked up the call. No one in a position to influence the Senate or the House made a move to advance a congressional war authorization.

Indeed, it has been three months since President Obama sent his proposal for an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force” focused on ISIS to Capitol Hill. It, too, met with a brief flurry of attention and then went nowhere.

This is mind-boggling. If you had any question that we’re at war, the bombing runs over Ramadi and the recent Delta Force raid that killed an ISIS official should have settled it. On the most important question government faces— military intervention overseas— Congress seems unable to stir itself to hammer out an agreement with the President. You can blame the President for this or you can blame Congress— each side comes in for its fair share— but inaction only expands the power of the President, leaving him to make hugely consequential decisions by himself. It’s a shocking dereliction of duty on Capitol Hill.

Why do I say this? The Constitution vests in Congress the power to declare war, but should that mean that Congress also has the responsibility to do so?

Let’s start with this: former acting CIA director Michael Morell recently said that the “great war” against Islamic terrorists is likely to last “for as long as I can see.” This is going to be a long and difficult conflict. It raises tough questions about the scope of the President’s powers, the duration of those powers, the definition and identity of the enemy, the extent of the field of battle, the kinds of force that should be used, America’s vital interests, and its fundamental role in the world.

The decision to apply American lives and resources to such a war is momentous, and as a country we need to know how far we’re willing to commit ourselves. The President needs backing for a military campaign, and the discussion about what it ought to entail needs to be open and rigorous.

I understand that this is a lot for Congress to undertake. A resolution authorizing the use of force is tough to draft— Congress needs to make the parameters and goals of military action clear without hindering our ability to respond to a fluid situation or micromanaging the executive branch. And, of course, it’s just as tough politically. Some members will want to give more powers to the President, others less. No one wants to be on the wrong side of a war vote.

However, the difficulty of a task is no reason to avoid it. If we are going to send U.S. forces into dangerous places, they need to go in with the public backing that comes from a formal authorization hammered out in Congress. This does not mean enacting a resolution after we’ve intervened— because then it’s an argument about supporting our troops in the field, and only a few members will vote against that.

Both the President and Congress are dragging their feet on this, but that only helps the President, not the country. It leaves him— and most likely his successor— with dangerously broad authority to use military force without restriction, in perpetuity. This is not how a democracy like ours should operate.

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.