Governing Is Grueling

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Friday, January 8, 2010

 The health-care debate is a case study in how difficult it is these days to legislate effectively. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton explains why "Governing Is Grueling."

With Congress close to finishing a bill on health-care reform, it's worth a moment's pause to reflect on just how difficult a task this has been. Lawmakers spent most of 2009 struggling to reconcile conflicting ideological interests and competing political agendas, and sorting through the immensely powerful corporate and business interests at stake, in an effort to extend coverage and lower health-care costs for many millions of Americans. The tortuous deliberations are a case study in why it has become so difficult to govern this country. It was back-breaking legislative labor. 

But then, that's what governing this country entails. Solving the nation's problems might seem easy when it's just you and a few friends sitting around a lunch counter, but that's not actually how the work gets done. Policy fixes not only need to make overall sense as appropriate and just, they also must be politically realistic. It does no good to come up with a solution that cannot be enacted into policy. 

Few Americans realize just how hard it is to get to that solution. First, the environment in which legislators toil today is stacked against them: Public confidence in Congress is low, so members of Congress simply do not have much ability to persuade skeptical Americans of the best options. It is difficult to engage in the back-and-forth dialogue that enables members to understand where people stand on a given issue, what they are willing to give up or accept, and where they are willing to end up. 

This is made vastly worse by the poisonous political atmosphere in which legislators work today: the unceasing partisanship on Capitol Hill and back home; the years-long decline of collegiality in Washington and of civility on the hustings; the sheer daily intensity of our lobbying culture; the 24-hour news cycle and Web flare-ups; and talk shows that make hostility and belligerence the common coin of political discourse. In this atmosphere, it takes extraordinary political skill and unusual patience to cultivate the legislative virtues of conciliation and cooperation. 

The legislative process itself makes things harder. It is slow, complex, untidy, filled with potential turning points, and constructed so that it is always easier to stop a piece of legislation than to move it along. In a divided Senate, as we've seen with the health-care bill, a single senator can delay or disrupt the process, although even without that hurdle the need to build consensus often means striking deals that are repulsive to some players, objectionable to many, and irritating to all. 

In a country as immense, diverse and politically divided as ours, however, there is often no other way to reach a workable agreement. In the end, we need to judge the package as a whole — whether the pluses and accomplishments of the bill outweigh the minuses. 

The complex lineup of issues faced by legislators often allows lawmakers to link them together in order to make progress on a pet concern. To many people in the health care debate, abortion was a side-issue compared to the importance of extending access to care; but for others, abortion was the one issue they cared about, and they were prepared to have the whole reform effort fail rather than allow the opportunity to pass without addressing it. 

Almost every substantial piece of legislation in Congress will reflect the myriad concerns and passions at work on Capitol Hill, and members will see an opportunity to resolve their most heartfelt concerns by linking them to other matters, thus making it necessary for legislators to resolve not just the issue in front of them, but many other issues as well. It is no work for the faint-hearted. 

Then, of course, there's the simple truth that legislative "solutions" to major public issues are rarely that. The issues they address tend to be so multi-faceted or difficult to understand fully that even when a measure passes, it is often only a first effort; over the years, it will have to be amended multiple times to clean up ambiguous language, to take advantage of missed opportunities, or to adapt to changing circumstances. 

Moreover, every law, no matter how well drafted, has to be implemented by fallible human beings. Even the most elegant solution on paper is nothing without people to make it work in the real world. 

If this all sounds messy and laborious, it is. However, it is certainly better than the more efficient but less democratic alternatives the world around us offers. Legislating and governing are grueling work — but with a patient and understanding electorate, the payoff to all that hard work can be effective policy-making that is broadly accepted. This is no mean feat in a nation as diverse and politically divided as ours is today. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)