Lee H. Hamilton
Do ordinary citizens still have a voice in Washington and in their state capitals? Despite the cynicism of these times, my answer is, yes, we do... but we have to exercise it.
There's no shortage of threats to our democracy. Russian meddling in elections, the vulnerability of state voting systems to hacking, politicians' assaults on the media, and political leaders' growing fondness for policymaking in secret — all of these pose a real challenge to our system's viability. As worrisome as these are, there's one problem that may be the greatest threat of all: Americans' loss of faith in politics and democratic institutions.
I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to journalism, I'm a traditionalist — old-fashioned, even. But I don't think it's a coincidence that even while confidence in the media drops to new lows and Time magazine feels moved to wonder "Is Truth Dead?" on its cover, huge numbers of Americans have come to believe the media is not as authoritative as it once was.
Back when I was in Congress, I got a call from a constituent one day. I'd recently voted to raise the nation's debt ceiling, and the man was more than irate. "Don't you understand that we've got a serious spending and debt problem in this country?" he asked. "Why did you cast this idiotic vote?" He was right about the problem. But he was wrong about the vote. With Congress fast approaching another debt-ceiling vote and yet one more "fiscal cliff" drama taking shape, I'd like to explain why that is.
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.
The Trump Administration, like its predecessors, has shown an apparent appetite for the use of force overseas. The mother-of-all-bombs dropped on Syrian troops, saber-rattling toward North Korea, deployment of U.S. forces in 10 or more countries — all of this suggests a growing comfort with the idea of putting our troops in dangerous places.
Think about this for a moment: Two days away from a federal shutdown, Congress comes up with a stopgap measure to keep the government operating for a week. A few days later, it arrives at a bipartisan budget deal lasting a bit over four months. This, in turn, moves the president to take to Twitter with the following statement: "Our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess!"
I have significant differences with Donald Trump's political stances, but I want him to enjoy a successful presidency. It's good for neither the country nor the world when a U.S. president struggles or fails. Yet, I also believe constructive criticism can help a president grow more capable. It's in this spirit that I want to take a hard look at the Trump presidency so far.
For the last few years, I've been keeping a file of clippings about the erosion of transparency and candor in government. I'm sorry to report that it's getting rather full. This is not a good thing. Public officials should feel strongly obliged to do their business in an open, upfront manner. When you hold public office, the presumption ought always to be in favor of the people's right to know what's going on. If you don't want to be open to scrutiny, then the burden surely has to be on you to say specifically why that's necessary.
As you watch the health care proceedings on Capitol Hill, imagine what things might be like if we lived in more functional political times. In particular, what if Congress was run by pragmatists? It would not change the issues at hand. On the one side, you'd have the Republican majority in Congress, which for the most part believes the health care system should be left to the private sector. On the other side would be Democrats who, to varying degrees, see an important role for government to play.