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Great nations don't lurch from crisis to crisis

Apr 25, 2014 - By Lee Hamilton

Great democracies do not lurch from doomsday moment to doomsday moment. Congress must stop resolving one crisis by setting up another a few months down the road.

One of the more amazing spectacles in the days after the government shutdown ended last fall was the obsession in Washington with who won and who lost in the showdown.

There was only one real loser, and that was the American people. Now there is talk of another shutdown crisis later this year, perhaps just after the fall elections.

Why? Because nothing got resolved, just postponed.

The record of the recent past gives no ground for optimism, though members of Congress may now recognize the enormous economic costs to the nation of a shutdown and near-default. To avoid repeating their recent sorry spectacle, however, they will have to confront three challenges.

First, Congress has to break its habit of governing by crisis. Second, its members need to take a leaf from this most recent experience and remember that the essence of legislating is negotiation. Finally, they need to recognize that every time Congress fails to assert itself, other institutions gain more power at its expense.

Great democracies do not lurch from doomsday moment to doomsday moment. They plan ahead, confront and resolve their challenges, fulfill their responsibilities abroad, and respond to their own people's needs.

Congress was designed to be the institution where the difficulties of the moment could be overcome by legislators with the skill and temperament to work together to overcome them.

Instead, we face a host of challenges with a Congress unable to address them because it can only postpone a crisis from one date to another.

Congress only works well when its members understand some key things: that each party has to walk away with something; that it's crucial to preserve flexibility and avoid pandering and scorched-earth rhetoric; that it needs to address the issues Americans care about most; that to avoid failure all the key players need to be at the table; and that they need the fortitude not to walk away from talks when things are going poorly.

"Any society that relies on nine unelected judges to resolve the most serious issues of the day is not a functioning democracy," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in a recent speech. I'm sorry to say that he's talking about us.

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Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. A Republican, he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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