Lee H. Hamilton
It feels like half the people I run into just want to pull the covers over their heads and ignore the news. Dozens of vital issues, from economic inequality to cyber-security, are going largely unaddressed.
You could choose any number of marquee dilemmas to illustrate how broken congressional politics has become. Guns, Russian interference, climate change — Americans want progress on all of them and get little from Capitol Hill. But to my mind, nothing illustrates the dire state of our politics better than how we act on the federal budget. This is not a glamorous issue, but it goes to the heart of our democracy. The budget is our operating system; it determines what the government does.
Presidents need oversight and scrutiny, they need a Congress that will press them and insist on consultation. They get very little of that pressure today. Don't get me wrong: I favor a strong president, but I also favor a strong Congress. And these days, we have a Congress marked by passivity and inability to exercise its constitutional responsibilities.
For one thing, we've always been an open country, welcoming a great diversity of people and remaining open to their aspirations and ideas. But we've been losing this. At the same time, too many Americans feel excluded and alienated from economic opportunity and what should be shared institutions. All of this has been straining our politics. We are more polarized and politically divided than I've seen in my lifetime.
The two parties will continue to be highly polarized. It used to be that both the Republicans and the Democrats held a mix of liberal and conservative views. That has changed. The wings are coming to define what is "mainstream" in both parties. We've had an intensification of cultural divisions — President Trump has shown special interest in these issues, and a willingness to fan their flames.
As the debt grows larger, it weighs more heavily on economic growth, crowds out private investment, creates economic uncertainty, dumps a burden on our children, and limits our ability as a nation to deal with unforeseen events. How we handle it will have a profound impact on our future and our role in the world. <
I can find no part of that sentence that's not still true. Americans still lack confidence in the electoral system.
They ask some version of the same question: What can we do to pull ourselves out of this dark period? For Americans who respect representative democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law, there's reason to be concerned. But are we in a downward spiral as a nation?
I don't just mean going to a town hall meeting and yelling, or shooting off a letter or email. I mean making an appointment to sit down with your representative — in his or her office, at a cafe in the district, or wherever else you can meet — and holding a real conversation.
We haven't followed it since the middle of the 1990s. Instead, we've been forced to live with high-stakes fiscal brinksmanship. The current budget deal, negotiated between Republicans and Democrats, has the virtue of having included both parties at the table with give and take on both sides. But let's not mistake it for good process. Congress is still putting the budget together with no accountability, no transparency, and scanty debate.