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OPINION: Wave of Retirements Should Serve as a Warning for Congress

By Lee Hamilton

Date:

Recently, I had occasion to look back at some of the early speeches I gave after I first went to Congress in 1965 as a young freshman member from Indiana. Admittedly, six decades is a long time. But even so, what I found was jarring.

Congress, I liked to tell audiences back then, worked in a remarkably hospitable environment. No matter how spirited the policy debate, I told listeners, we were surrounded by what I called “a cocoon of warmth.” We looked out for one another, regardless of party.

Here’s an example. Fairly early in my tenure, I made a mistake on the House floor. I was managing a bill for the Democratic caucus and forgot about a small but crucial parliamentary move that would have locked victory in place. William Bray, a prominent Republican — also from Indiana — came over and put his arm on my shoulder. Gently, he pointed out my blunder and then, remarkably, showed me how to fix it — on a bill he opposed. That was how Congress worked then.

Well, you don’t need me to tell you that things have changed. And it’s not just that when we think of Congress, words like “partisan” and “vitriol” come most easily to mind. It’s that even within the majority Republican caucus in the House, stark divisions have brought things to a standstill. Congress seems unable to act.

And that is taking a toll. House members of both parties are heading for the exits, but the exodus seems especially notable among Republicans. No fewer than five Republican committee chairs — that is to say, legislators who have reached the apex of their power, unless they want to make a bid for the caucus leadership — have announced they’re stepping down. At the moment, more than 20 House Republicans are leaving at the end of their terms; that number will almost certainly grow.

And there is not much question about what’s driving it. As NBC News put it recently, “Mounting frustration with the paralysis and dysfunction in the House is driving out experienced, pragmatic dealmakers on Capitol Hill.” Politico’s Jordain Carney and Olivia Beavers put it even more bluntly. “The departures are starting to spark worries about a further erosion of GOP lawmakers’ appetite for the basic tasks of governing,” they wrote at the end of February.

To be sure, there are Democrats leaving, too, and the reasons for retiring vary, from running for a different office to concerns about health to a chance to make more money as a lobbyist. But many of the people leaving are relatively young — legislators who, by rights, should have promising days ahead. Instead, as Mark Green, a Republican from Tennessee, put it when he announced his retirement, they believe that Congress is “broken beyond most means of repair.”

There’s no question that, at the moment, the future seems grim. But I want to suggest that it doesn’t have to be that way. And to make my point, I want to go back 30 years, to a time in the mid-1990s, when there was a government shutdown much like the one we’re facing now. It was driven by stark ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats and fueled by bitter debate. The GOP leadership shut down most of the federal government for 27 days and Congress’s public standing sank somewhere into the earth’s mantle.

But then members turned things around. In just 10 days they passed a series of major bills, including welfare overhaul and an increase to the minimum wage. They had rediscovered pragmatism.

I don’t want to say that something like that will happen, only that it’s possible. And that’s my point. It’s not Congress that’s broken, it’s the people working within it who make it that way.

Three decades ago, what turned things around was that every time members of Congress went home, they got an earful from constituents who were tired of division and obstruction and wanted Congress to do its job for the country. Voters were fine with tough debate over the merits of the issues; what they didn’t want was gridlock. Today’s members — especially those inclined toward gridlock — should be getting the same message.                


Lee Hamilton, 92, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana. 

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