Lee Hamilton’s acceptance speech for 2014 Distinguished Service Award


July 16, 2014
Distinguished Service Award
Library of Congress
Jefferson Building
Washington, DC

I thank you for the award. It is a high privilege and honor to receive it. I cherish it especially because it comes from this Association and from my fellow members of Congress. I am also pleased to receive the award because of our common interest in representative democracy and the institution of the Congress.

I’d like to talk with you briefly about the question: “Why is our interest in representative democracy and the Congress Important?”

First, Congress needs help. I think we’d all agree that Congress is not working very well today. It stands in very low public esteem. I find it hard to find anyone who thinks that it’s doing a good job. Our political dilemma is that we admire our Constitutional system of representative democracy. We often praise its accomplishments over more than 200 years of our history, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing today.

The unresolved challenges we confront are formidable; a long list of economic and budgetary problems, abortion, gun control, climate change, tax and entitlement reform, immigration, border control and drug laws. To deal with these and other challenges, the Congress needs to be at the top of its game. It is not. Our much admired political system is not getting the results from our system that we want. So your interest in it, your knowledge of it, the comments you make about the Congress, its strengths and its weaknesses, enrich the public dialogue about this troubled institution. That is the way we make progress in this country.

There are many ways to resolve that dilemma; a number of procedural steps could ease the gridlock. You’ll be pleased to know that I’m not going to go into all of them this afternoon, you know them as well as I do. We all want to contribute to making this institution we have served better.

Second, over the past several decades, the balance of power in our system is shifting decisively to the executive branch. One has to ask how far down that path can we can go, and still have representative democracy. This march toward increased Presidential power (whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican) undercuts our Constitutional system. We should not give up on the separation of powers. We should try strengthening the Congress. That is not the easy route but if we don’t take it, representative democracy is in doubt. Our efforts should be – not to weaken the Presidency, but to strengthen the Congress – and to get a better balance of government power. Our system functions best when we have a strong President and a strong Congress.

Third, Congress needs more attention because of the influence of money. We do not yet understand that influence well enough, but my guess is you would share my concern. The polls suggest that Americans believe the role of money has gotten out of hand. Some say we need to get money out of politics but we know that’s not going to happen. Most of us favor finding some ways to reduce the impact of money in the system. Money may or may not be corrupting, but it does provide donors and lobbyists with disproportionate influence, and diminishes the power of ordinary voters. We probably disagree on the best way to do that but the debate is worth having.

Fourth, our criticism of the Congress should be practical, constructive. For example, I believe that the Congress needs to be encouraged to up its game on oversight. The system benefits:

  • When Congress works tirelessly to understandthe problems and address them before they explode, as they did in the VA scandal.
  • When Congress insists that an agency has adequate resources, that it control its bloat, that it tightens its operations.
  • When Congress reduces the gap between the people at the top and the people on the front line.
  • When Congress looks into every nook and cranny of the agencies’ operation.

Unless it is willing to accept its responsibility for diligent oversight, the next scandal is only a matter of time. Congress has a duty to get ahead of the problems, not lag constantly behind them. Many failures of the federal bureaucracy can be avoided with robust Congressional oversight. Politics cannot be eliminated from the oversight process and should not be, but politics should not drive the whole oversight enterprise. Oversight is no place for timidity or Congressional deference to the Executive branch. It’s not enough to have one branch of government overseeing itself. Our system depends on a vigorous Congress to get the checks and balances we need.

Fifth, Congress needs someone to speak up for it. I often ask myself – who defends the Congress? Not the public. Not the President or the Supreme Court. Not the academic community. Not even members of Congress. They go to great pains to separate themselves from the institution. They run for Congress by running against the Congress. No wonder, then, people hold the Congress in low esteem. It has no defenders. It has become America’s favorite indoor sport to criticize it.

We have to step up, make clear the importance of the role of the Congress in a representative democracy. Indeed, without the Congress, there would be no representative democracy in this country. Our political leaders confront a terribly difficult political environment. The country is both deeply and evenly divided along partisan and ideologically lines. Making this huge, diverse, complicated country work, resolving our differences, building a consensus behind a solution is tough going.
Representative democracy is one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. But no one ever said it was easy.

The American people need a more sophisticated understanding of the Congress and its role in our representative democracy. Your skill and passion to increase that understanding is a major contribution to making this country a more perfect union.