ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

COMMENTS ON CONGRESS: Remember what government can do

Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a nonpartisan educational institution that believes learning about Congress is central to responsible citizenship.

US Capital Building.
Adobe Stock
Adobe Stock
We are part of The Trust Project.

Here’s a question: When was the last time at least half of Americans said the government in Washington could be trusted to do the right thing all or most of the time?

It was right after 9/11, according to the Pew Research Center, and that was really just a blip. Before that, you’d have to go back to the 1960s.

And after the 9/11 bump subsided? You won’t be surprised to hear that ever since the end of the George W. Bush administration, the percentage of those trusting government all or most of the time has been hovering in the low 20s or even the high teens.

This is not a good state of affairs. Trust is a bedrock requirement of democratic governance. When it’s gone, replaced by suspicion and lack of confidence, our system cannot work.

For representative democracy to function as it should, the public officials, politicians and policymakers who act in our name have to have the support of ordinary people – who can trust that our representatives will level with us without half-truths and that government can efficiently and effectively deliver the goods, services, and policy impact we expect.

ADVERTISEMENT

There’s no question that over the past decades – starting with the Vietnam War and Watergate – that faith has been put to the test.

In many respects, Americans have taken a dimmer view of the effectiveness and relevance of government the more it has been hamstrung by partisan division just as they’ve been feeling left to their own in the face of economic and cultural dislocation.

Globalization, the changes wrought by technology, skyrocketing income inequality, slow wage growth for working families, concern about hot-button social issues – all of this has ratcheted up a sense of loss of control. And that was before the pandemic.

Yet despite all this, when I look around I’m reminded of just how much our government has accomplished – and how thoroughly it’s taken for granted by many Americans.

People often question the value of government in their lives, even while depending on a monthly Social Security check, or driving on an interstate, or attending college thanks to a student loan, or going online, or relying on the overall safety of our food and medications or escaping to a national park for vacation… You get the idea.

When many Americans think of the government’s spending priorities, they imagine that outsized proportions of taxpayer dollars go to others – to foreign aid, say, or welfare.

In fact, the biggest chunk of federal spending has traditionally gone to Social Security, Medicare and other programs for elderly Americans, surpassed recently only by the money for economic stimulus and family income support that kept the economy from crashing during the pandemic.

I’m not going to bore you with a long list of things the federal government has done well. But I do want to say that it takes only a moment’s thought to look back – at everything from the creation of the land-grant colleges to establishing the rules by which American businesses operate to Medicare and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s to, more recently, the Affordable Care Act, enabling the rapid development and approval of life-saving COVID vaccines, and the continued safety provided by the world’s strongest, most advanced military – to recognize the cornerstone role our government plays in shaping American life.

ADVERTISEMENT

So yes, while government has its failings, it’s also crucial to understand that it can be made to work effectively and fairly – and that we cannot address many of the challenges we face as a nation without a government that has the public’s confidence.

The character, resourcefulness and resilience of the American people have always been key to the nation’s success, but so have key government initiatives that marshal our strengths, from good education to basic scientific and medical research to the physical and legal infrastructure that undergird our economy.

In the end, there may be plenty of reason to worry about government’s effectiveness, but government must also be part of the solution. Our charge as Americans is to ensure, through wise use of our votes and our voices, that it can be an effective force for meeting our challenges.

Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a nonpartisan educational institution that believes learning about Congress is central to responsible citizenship. The center seeks to inspire young people and adults to take an active part in revitalizing representative government. The center strives to help citizens be effective in bringing their concerns to elected officials so government actions reflect the “consent of the governed.” Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

MORE OPINION:
Last week, the United States bumped up against its $31.4 trillion statutory debt limit.
Lee Hamilton writes, "You have to remember that legislators are asked to vote on a stunningly complex array of issues, some of which they’re familiar with, some of which they’re not, and many of which have real consequences for real people."
On the other hand, unexpected bipartisan moderation could come from House rule changes that were demanded by Republican holdouts
If you are awarded relief by a court in a lawsuit brought under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, the award will be offset by the amount of any disability award, payment or benefit VA provided to you.

Related Topics: COMMENTARY
Opinion by Lee Hamilton
What To Read Next
A guest commentary by State Sen. Paul Utke.
The winter months bring fun activities for those willing to brave the outdoors, but time outside in the dry and cold air can be tough on our skin.
Last week, the Minnesota Legislature kicked off the 93rd legislative session.
The 118th Congress convened Tuesday, Jan. 3.