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Shaping policy is hard work

POSTED: August 7, 2007 5:02 a.m.
You can interpret the Senate’s recent rejection of the immigration reform compromise several ways.
You might see it as a political response to intense anti-immigrant pressure from talk radio and a slice of the heartland. You might consider it “an enormous failure that borders on dereliction of duty,” as one Florida newspaper editorialized.
Or you might, as I do, count it an especially convincing example of just how difficult it can be to create sound public policy.
As the subject comes up at the courthouse-square cafe, over cards at the VFW hall or in conversation at church, many Americans no doubt are shaking their heads over the fact, once again, Congress failed to act when it needed to do so.
Yet those exchanges themselves illustrate the problem. For some, illegal immigration is a scourge that must be dealt with harshly; for others, it’s a fact of life that requires us to integrate millions of people into our society; for still others, immigration presents an opportunity to build an economy for the 21st century.
All these points of view were present in the Senate debate. And you can find equally diverse, passionately held beliefs whenever Congress takes up the most pressing issues facing us today: Iraq, health care, energy policy, global warming. It is Congress’ job to find a way past those differences, to forge legislation that serves the national interest, meets the desires of the American people, and allows Americans whose views diverge sharply to find common ground. It's frustrating when it fails. But let's not pretend that it’s easy.
The issues Congress is being asked to confront are extraordinarily difficult and they come at its members with such great rapidity that the time to consider them carefully seems an unaffordable luxury. Sometimes, as with global warming, there’s a consensus as to the nature of the problem but no agreement at all — either on Capitol Hill or in the country at large — on how to proceed. Sometimes, as with health care or immigration, there’s not even agreement on what the problem is, only that there is a problem.
For our political leaders, sorting through all this is immensely complicated. Some issues are highly technical and demand detailed study; others have so many moving parts that it’s hard to master them in their entirety. And while Washington is filled with entrenched interest groups that may contribute to understanding the fine points of any given issue, they will inevitably fight hard when their interests are at stake.
If discerning where the national interest lies is difficult, so is trying to figure out where the American people stand on any given issue.
The truth is, our opinions are often fuzzy — more a gut sense than a finely nuanced argument — and changeable. Crafting legislation that will be accepted by 300 million people, or even a majority of them, is a gargantuan challenge.
This is one reason many members of Congress would rather put off dealing with tough issues, and it is why it takes extraordinary political leadership to come up with a solution that can command a majority in Congress and support from most Americans.
It gets even harder when you take into account the process that legislation must pass through. Our system was designed by its framers to move slowly — to cool passions, to prevent a rash response, to keep the majority from trampling the interests of the minority. Letting it work can be immensely frustrating, especially when movement bogs down over the specific wording of a measure or a seemingly trivial point.
But the measured pace of change is also a gift, allowing legislators to examine an issue from all sides, understand its intricacies, look for unforeseen and unintended consequences, build consensus on Capitol Hill, create support in the country at large, and educate the American people as to what they're doing and why.
When they can’t, our tendency is either to blame the politicians, assigning them all sorts of malign motives, or to blame the system itself. What we forget is that there are genuine, deeply held political differences that have to be resolved. It’s hard work, and it demands strong leadership, patience, and an abundance of good will.
The road to producing good results can be fraught and difficult, yet I’m reminded of Gerald Ford's comment when he became President after Richard Nixon’s resignation: “The Constitution works,” he said. It does.
We might not always enjoy the troubles that assail us along its path, but in the end we move past the difficulty of the moment, achieve at least a few victories, and, refreshed, square our shoulders to face the next challenge.

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.
 

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