Hamilton on Congress
Talking to the Other Side
By Lee H. Hamilton
I’ve had a number of conversations recently that convince me our country is divided into two political camps separated by a deep and uncomfortably wide gap. No, I’m not talking about liberals and conservatives, or pro- and anti-Trump voters. I’m talking about people who believe in politics and our political system, and people who don’t.
I’ve found this latter view expressed most frequently among young people. In lecture halls and in informal conversations, I’ve spent some uncomfortable hours serving as a human pincushion for their pointed barbs about the system they’ve grown up in.
Many are uninterested in politics. They do not see politics as a worthy pursuit or even as an honorable vocation. They doubt our political institutions can be made to work, are suspicious of elected officials in general, and don’t believe that our democratic institutions are capable either of solving the problems faced by the country or of helping them as individuals.
They find reason to be discouraged every time they tap into a political story. They’re disheartened by political polarization, by the dominant and excessive role of money in the process, and by the seemingly impregnable influence of special interests on the course of policy. They struggle with their own problems, especially the debt they’ll confront when they get out of school – and believe that they’ll get no help from government.
Indeed, they’re convinced that people in power place their own interests ahead of the country’s – which is why so many of them express real contempt for politicians. They certainly don’t see politics as an uplifting pursuit; I hear the word “messy” a lot, not as an objectively descriptive term, but as an expression of ethical disapproval.
They have a point. There are many reasons for disappointment in our groaning system, and the descriptions they give have much merit.
Yet I still consider politics a worthy profession. It can be pursued in a manner that deserves respect, even admiration. I’ve known a lot of good people in politics, men and women who are in it for all the right reasons, take pride in pursuing a political career, and embrace it as the best route available for solving our common problems.
In fact, I think people who reject the political system often underestimate its accomplishments. We are a strong, prosperous, and free nation because of – not in spite of – our system and the politicians who have come before us.
Sure, politics is “messy,” but not because it’s tainted or morally bankrupt. It’s messy because it often reflects deep-seated disagreements that are hard to resolve, with merit on both sides.
Politics is rarely a struggle between good and evil; it’s how we Americans try to make the country work better. It’s our opportunity to help our neighbors, to give us better schools and hospitals and highways, to make our communities safer and more orderly. It’s a means of resolving our differences through dialogue and compromise, rather than through ideological battle or pitched warfare. If you pay attention, you’ll see a lot of politicians who go about their business intelligently, quietly, and competently – and who get good things done.
So I find myself wondering how those of my persuasion might win these young people over. Discourse matters, obviously. Tolerance of others’ views does, too. And I consider the 240 years of our history, despite all the obvious blemishes, to make a pretty good case for the political system’s accomplishments.
Above all, though, we have to encourage young people’s engagement with the problems we confront. If they want to improve things, they really have no alternative. Getting involved is the only way to see how tough these issues are and how much work goes into even incremental progress. We live in a complicated country and there are a lot of disappointments inherent in trying to make change. But it’s the only way we’ve got.
Those of us who believe in the system must shoulder the burden of persuasion – and I’m worried about what happens if we don’t meet it. If we lose the argument and the next generation turns away, we face dangers and risks – chaos, authoritarianism – that are far worse than what we face now.
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.
“Sen. John McCain [R-AZ] recently reflected on the first five months of GOP rule in Washington… ‘The fact is I’m disappointed,’ the famously gruff Arizona Republican fumed in an interview late last month, calling his party’s governing plans a ‘train wreck’ set to hit Congress in September.”
– Politico, 6/5/2017
After 13 years of following US legislation it is clear that the primary difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is where the money comes from and where the money goes. How that is presented to the public is through too much misplaced blame without supporting facts.
Probably the most typical complaint Republicans have about Democrats goes back to Reagan when it became a Republican mantra that Democrats are the party of tax and spend. Taxing and spending, of course, is how the government works; we take in revenues mainly from individual income taxes and corporate taxes and then we spend the money on government agencies and programs within them. The Republican version of how we operate is to cut taxes and spend; cut revenues and spend and the logical results are budget deficits, the first notable one since after WW II was during Reagan’s terms when he left office having agreed to several tax increases and a $300 billion deficit, an amount unheard of until then.
The results of that was several pieces of legislation resulting in the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 that introduced a guideline; Pay As You Go (PAYGO) that, simply stated, required that tax increases be offset by spending cuts and spending increases have to be offset by increased taxes or cuts elsewhere in the government. If Congress failed to meet those requirements sequester would kick in requiring the president’s Office of Management and Budget to make agency cuts to make up the difference. President Clinton and the House Speaker Newt Gingrich skillfully used PAYGO over eight years resulting in a budget surplus of about $200 billion when Clinton left office.
With those tools at hand why, then, did President Bush leave office with a $1 trillion deficit? Two reasons; the Bush tax cuts aiming to free up money to stimulate the economy and it appears to have worked that way. But then it stopped working yet the politically popular program was continued yearly with efforts to make them permanent. Because the federal budget is based on a bottom line of expected revenues and outlays the program continued to dog the deficit and made reducing the deficit difficult if not impossible. The second reason is that the war in Iraq ran off budget for at least two years when even Republican budget writers became uncomfortable with the growing deficit. Bush also spent money on his prescription plan that lowered prescription costs but was certainly a windfall for pharmaceuticals; a good example of the cut taxes and spend philosophy.
All of this rumbled downhill and fell at the feet of the new Obama Administration in 2008 where the new president inherited an unprecedented $1 trillion debt right in the middle of the Great Recession. A combination of Obama stimulus and other moves and those of Congress brought the deficit down after 8 years to around $450 billion.
The above is the canvas on which the Republican majority began to implement its agenda and did so for the past 8 years including this year. Most of that time was taken up trying to further reduce taxes and cut entitlements.
Where the unsubstantiated blame came into play was the Republican opposition to Obamacare and the objections were incredible; the law is unconstitutional they said but the Supreme Court found otherwise; the bill includes death panels where senior decisions to continue life was up to the government. That nonsense misdirected the laws intent to urge seniors to consider end of life options with their doctors. The job killer accusation continues to be touted but bringing over 20 million people into the healthcare market actually created millions of jobs. The rising cost of premiums is an accurate conclusion but it is only for those who earned too much to get subsidies and Congress did nothing to help those people, rather used their situation as an example of everyone’s experience. Insurers leaving the exchange market is true but they will continue to provide insurance in those states, just not through the exchange and you have to wonder why Congress has not leaned on the insurers to stay in the market?
Well, Republicans got what they wanted; control of the Senate and House and Supreme Court and the White House. Things should go in their direction one would think but they are not.
So, without any really good reason to repeal Obamacare rather than repair it Senate and House leadership continues the cut tax and spend strategy. The American Healthcare Act (AHCA) is actually inconsequential when it comes to providing better and less expensive insurance. It is simply a tool to recoup the near trillion in taxes and fees Obamacare imposed to keep itself running. The AHCA is actually chintzy when it comes to healthcare spending and you would expect that; cutting those taxes and fees, by federal budget standards is actually spending. Not using those funds to pay down the deficit is irresponsible and will lead to greater deficits over the next five to ten years.
Congresses inability to enact the AHCA is the stickler because recouping those taxes and fees are intended to justify further more targeted tax breaks and remember, tax breaks are spending so the revenue has to come from somewhere. Leadership sees that happening in two ways; relieving individuals and companies of those tax burdens will allow for business investment growth, higher employment and so more taxes to the Treasury even though that hasn’t worked in 11 years of trying. The other element of the plan is to cut spending and it is there the difference between Democrats and Republicans is obvious; the cuts would come from entitlement programs, those safety nets for the poor and working poor. And those people, in the Republican budgets and the Trump proposed budget do not get a tax break.
US Sanctions Korea + Russians
“The United States on Thursday blacklisted nine companies and government institutions, including two Russian firms, and three people for their support of North Korea’s weapons programs.
The announcement from the U.S. Treasury came as diplomats said the United States and China were likely to propose on Thursday that the U.N. Security Council blacklist more North Korean individuals and entities over the country’s repeated ballistic missile launches.” Reuters
The US and Iran in Syria
“A U.S. air raid against Iranian-backed fighters in southern Syria last week represents a volatile new phase of the conflict that could trigger a wider confrontation between the United States and Iran — and their allies on the ground. Until last week’s strike, the United States and Iran had managed to steer clear of a direct confrontation in Iraq and Syria, where each has hundreds of military advisors on the ground, embedded with local forces.” ‘…each has hundreds of military advisors on the ground, embedded with local forces. Foreign Policy
ISIS Attacks Iran
“Two teams of attackers used gunfire and explosives to strike Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran on Wednesday, according to state media. The twin attacks killed at least 12 people and wounded 42 others. “Deputy Interior Minister Hossein Zolfaqari said that the terrorists had entered the parliament in [women’s] dress,” Iran’s state news agency reports. It adds that a female assailant detonated herself outside the mausoleum. NPR