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Continuing Education

Hamilton Still Doing His Best to Teach Americans About Congress

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) is widely viewed as a master of the coolly deliberative approach.

But then again, that’s to be expected of a man who spent much of his 30-plus years in the House serving “on just about every Congressional reform commission” that existed. Democracy at its core, he says, is mostly an unending — and sometimes unwieldy — process, one that requires constant vigilance.

Over the years whenever the nation has needed a voice of reason and moderation — a reliable “grown-up” if you will — to sort through the more recondite aspects of the republic’s affairs, it has often turned to this man: a low-key Hoosier with a crew cut and an apparently limitless tolerance for the crucial yet tedious work needed to ensure accountability in government.

That said, it should come as no surprise that Hamilton, the current vice chairman of the commission charged with investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, recently released what amounts to a 147-page defense of the institution he believes to be responsible for the maintenance of no less a national virtue than freedom itself.

In “How Congress Works and Why You Should Care,” published earlier this year by Indiana University Press, Hamilton issues a call to the American people “to engage more actively in civic life,” at a time when polls show only 6 percent can name the Speaker of the House.

For much of his tenure in the House, the 17-term Congressman sought to remedy this general ignorance through the weekly “Washington Report” newsletter he sent to many of his southern Indiana constituents. It is that newsletter, in addition to a monthly syndicated column on Congress he currently pens, that form the basis for the book.

“The thing that really impressed me in public meetings is it just seemed to me I was spending an awful lot of time explaining to people the role of the Congress: its strengths and limitations,” he says. “There isn’t a life in America that isn’t impacted by it — from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night.”

Indeed, as Hamilton points out in the book, everything from electricity in rural areas to the quality of the water you drink is directly linked to legislative action.

And most Members, he says, rather than being the duplicitous Machiavellis many people take them for, are hard-working public servants, dedicated to the common good.

“This is a great, big complicated country and making it work — governing it — is a lot harder than most people think,” he says.

But for all his optimism about Congress’ future, Hamilton remains concerned about the institution’s increasing “timidity” when dealing with the executive branch. “It’s meant to be a co-equal branch of government,” he asserts, pointing to the recent revelations of the abuses at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as a key example of Congress’ failure “to perform its oversight function.”

“Both branches have the responsibility to correct abuses and neither did,” he added.

Moreover, says Hamilton, legislating requires time and careful deliberation — two factors which have been largely lost due to party leaders’ contemporary predilection to “win at all costs” by relying on “huge spending supplementals and omnibus bills” to pass cardinal legislation, thereby obviating the possibility of considering each measure on its merits and in its appropriate committee.

It “makes a mockery of the legislative process,” Hamilton asserts. “When the process is given short shrift, a lot of hard questions are not asked, a lot of talented expertise is not utilized, different backgrounds, different points of view are not brought to bear, consensus is not built … democracy doesn’t function as it should.”

Hamilton blames the growing partisanship on everything from the politically focused nature of the media to the truncated Congressional work week to the “more evenly divided country” to the noncompetitive way in which most House districts are now drawn.

“I can remember [Hubert] Humphrey and [Barry] Goldwater debating in very vigorous fashion on the Senate floor and then walking off the floor arm in arm. It’s more and more difficult to imagine that type of relationship today.”

These criticisms aside, however, Hamilton says his retirement from Congress had nothing to do with any sense that “the institution was going to Hell in a handbasket.”

“I was there for 34 years and it was time for me to leave,” the former chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee says matter of factly.

In his current capacity, Hamilton has been widely credited for his ability to help maintain a sense of calm amidst the political tsunami surrounding the 9/11 Commission’s work.

“All of us on the commission are former politicians, washed-up politicians, I guess, and so we have our political biases we bring to the table,” he says. “But we understand that in order to get the information we need, we have to have cooperation with a lot of people and a lot of agencies and institutions.”

If the panel’s report — due in July — has any chance of adoption, he notes, it can’t be seen to reflect a particular political bias.

“If we come up with a report that five Democrats approve and five Republicans disapprove or vice versa — the report, the recommendations will be dead in the water.”

Although the commission is his primary focus these days, the 73-year-old Hamilton also heads the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is the founding director of Indiana University’s Center on Congress, which aims to educate “ordinary folks” in the midst of “very busy lives” about the institution through “a variety of outreach means,” ranging from a Web site to radio spots, conferences and cartoons.

And while much of Congress (and the rest of the country) was busy dividing itself into two increasingly rigid ideological camps, Hamilton, though a dedicated Democrat, has prided himself on remaining reliably above the fray. It would be possible to get through the book without much more than a hint of where Hamilton stands on the major issues of the day.

“I don’t think it will inflame anyone,” he concedes.

Unlike other retiring Members who have chosen to channel their remaining campaign funds to like-minded associates, after his 1998 retirement Hamilton gave the $50,000 or so remaining dollars in his campaign account to Indiana University. And unlike many of his colleagues on the commission, he so far appears to have refrained from contributing to any federal candidates or national party committees.

“One reason they get me to serve on all these committees is I work cheap,” Hamilton quips. “I’m not a man of personal wealth and never have been.”

As for future literary endeavors, Hamilton, the author of an earlier book on the roles of the president and Congress in the making of U.S. foreign policy, says he’s been approached by “several publishing houses” to write a book on the 9/11 Commission, but has yet to commit to the project.

“I don’t know if I’ll get to it,” he says. “I haven’t had a chance to think it through.”

Asked if he ever gets tired of playing the role of the nation’s “adult in residence,” Hamilton — who headed the House panel investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, took a lead role in drafting ethics reforms during his tenure on the House ethics committee, co-chaired an inquiry into security breaches at Los Alamos, and has served on the Hart-Rudman Commission that studied terrorist threats to the United States prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — says the seemingly endless demands on his time are par for the course.

“I count it as a compliment,” says Hamilton. “I like to be helpful.”

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