“Congress has to step up and begin to fulfill its responsibilities under the Constitution”

On November 24, 2015, President Barack Obama presented former Member of Congress Lee Hamilton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The award recognizes, among other criteria, “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interest of the United States.” One of his many contributions for which I am personally grateful is his founding of The Congressional Study Group on Germany, one of the programs that I now manage.

Hamilton’s idea for The Congressional Study Group on Germany — the first of our four non-partisan international legislative exchanges — came about in the 1980s during his congressional service. “It impressed me as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee how little time and effort was spent in the House trying to understand or even to impact American foreign policy,” said Hamilton. About that time, European leaders visiting Washington — who traditionally only had meetings with executive branch officials — began to extend their agendas to request meetings with the US Congress. In response to their growing interest, Hamilton supported a number of initiatives to increase inter-parliamentary dialogue. At his suggestion, the US Association of Former Members of Congress became the secretariat for the exchange program with Germany to ensure that program could maintain an active calendar to match the great interest from the German Bundestag.

Former Congressman Lee Hamilton (center) received FMC’s Distinguished Service Award in 2014 on the floor of the House of Representatives.

President Obama’s remarks celebrated Hamilton as “one of the most influential voices on international relations and American national security over the course of his more than 40 year career.” While in Congress, he served as Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Intelligence Committee, the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran, and the House October Surprise Task Force. After retirement, he continued to serve his country on the high-profile 9/11 Commission and Iraq Study Group. Had luck not intervened though, according to Hamilton, his career focus could have been very different.

Despite always having a general interest in foreign affairs, it was not Hamilton’s initial choice for a legislative focus. “I came to the Congress wanting to get on the public works committee trying to get some projects for my district,” said Hamilton. “That was a very popular committee at the time. I couldn’t get on it.” His mentors offered him a seat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs until there was an opening on Public Works. Over the years though, he grew to thoroughly enjoy foreign affairs, became energized by the issues, and decided to stay there as he found a growing opportunity to shape policy.

Indeed, a desire to shape policy is what drew him to public service. After graduating law school, Hamilton practiced law in southern Indiana but became bored after several years. “I got very restless,” he said. “I enjoyed some aspects of it, but figured out that I wasn’t going to be the world’s greatest lawyer.” His interests turned more and more to public policy, and he knew that politics was the best way for him to have an impact, even if he did not relish the “political game” as many of his colleagues did.

And yet, in addition to his foreign policy prowess, Hamilton is one of the foremost experts on the institution of Congress, and more broadly, representative government. He is also the institution’s greatest advocate, particularly as the founder of The Center on Representative Government at Indiana University. Established in 1999, the Center developed out of Hamilton’s recognition that the public should be more familiar with Congress’ strengths and weaknesses, its role in our system of government, and its impact on the lives of ordinary people every day. “Representative government today is under a lot of stress,” said Hamilton.

“The paradox is that we are all very proud of our history and our constitution and our system of representative government, but we don’t think it’s working very well today.” He stresses that his concern isn’t a partisan one. There has been a growing public disappointment and lack of confidence in government that has developed over decades. At the same time power has shifted towards the presidency, and Congress has become increasingly dysfunctional and ineffective. “How long can you go down that road and still have representative government?” asks Hamilton.

“Congress has to step up and begin to fulfil its responsibilities under the constitution as a co-equal branch of government,” said Hamilton, balancing the role of partner and critic to the executive branch. “And what is really distressing is that the Members of Congress don’t seem to care.”

Both parties are hesitant to bring legislation to the floor unless it had support already from their own caucus, leaving many important issues unaddressed. Lost is the crucial ability to build consensus behind a solution to a problem, which is admittedly, said Hamilton, very hard work and very time-consuming. “Members of Congress today work very hard, but they don’t work hard at legislating,” said Hamilton. They are instead overwhelmed by fundraising and cater “anti-Washington” politics of the day. The congressional calendar reflects these forces, only scheduling three days most weeks in the nation’s capital. Legislation takes time, asserts Hamilton, and this means Members need to spend more time in Washington, DC.

Hamilton recommends that Members of Congress take a walk down the National Mall to find inspiration, as he regularly did late at night during his congressional tenure, often during difficult negotiations. Standing before the great monuments, one can find satisfaction and pride in our country. “But it also occurred to me while I stood there,” said Hamilton,” that those heroes stand mute, and that the responsibility to carrying our country forward stands not with Jefferson and Lincoln but with us.”