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Debate is good for our system
Lee Hamilton large
Lee Hamilton
We certainly have a quarrelsome Congress. In recent weeks its members have been arguing about funding children's health insurance, whether to assert that the Turks committed World War I-era genocide against the Armenians, and what sort of energy policy should guide the nation.
Then there’s the ongoing issue of the Iraq war, the constant debate over how to fix our health care system, and any number of other dustups and outright policy brawls that seem to take place every time you look in on a committee room or chamber on Capitol Hill.
A lot of people don't like this. Pretty much every time I address an audience, someone complains, “I’m sick and tired of all the bickering. Those guys are always fighting.” And everyone around will nod.
Most people are uncomfortable with disagreement and debate. As individuals, this is fine; but as citizens, I would argue that we should not only get used to it, we should be pleased by it. It has been a constant in American politics, and let us hope it always will be.
Extensive debate is written into the very structure of our congressional system. At every level, from subcommittees through committees to the floor of each chamber and then to the conference committees that bring members from each house of Congress together, there is the presumption of discussion, debate, disagreement and even argument. Our Founders understood the importance of conflict in the system, both as a way for all views to be represented, and as a process for building common ground among them.
For the fundamental fact of our democracy is that Americans, despite all that unites us, nonetheless have much that divides us: different philosophies, different prospects in life, different backgrounds, different communities, different ways to define what is in our self-interest, what is in our community's interest, and what is in our nation’s best interest.
It’s true that these divisions can be exacerbated by special interests, the media, and politicians all seeking to exploit them to their own ends, but that doesn’t mean the initial differences don’t exist. They do. And it is Congress’ job to sort through them as it strives to find the majorities it needs to move forward on legislation. If there weren’t conflict, Congress wouldn’t be doing its job.
There are certainly times when the conflict built into our system gets out of hand, and the people involved become mean-spirited or angry. But overall, disputation and debate are not a weakness of our democracy, they’re a strength. They lead to better, more sustainable decisions. They help to build majority support for a proposal. And they are part of how we talk to one another as we search for common ground. Let me give you an example. Throughout the years in Washington, there has been much discussion about whether the nation ought to have a single director of national intelligence. I was initially quite skeptical about the value of reorganizing our intelligence community to impose such a position. Then, however, I served as co-chair of the 9/11 Commission. We had long, sometimes very pointed debates about how our intelligence system was working, and by the end I’d come to the conclusion that the only way to obtain the sharing of intelligence information our country needs was to centralize authority in a single directorate. In other words, I changed my mind because of our debates.
The same thing is constantly taking place in Congress. Some issues are extremely difficult to resolve. They take years of wrangling, arguing, and debate simply for members to find enough common ground so they can move forward. It helps to look past the often messy process and judge Congress by the end results.
The minimum-wage bill that passed earlier this year; how best to shape our homeland security system; how to structure children’s health insurance — all of these have been subject to heartfelt and sometimes quite contentious disputes over the years, but in the end, Congress reaches a conclusion and we move on.
Indeed, I believe we are stronger for the sometimes difficult road Congress has to travel as it searches for solutions to the challenges that confront us. For a strong debate means that all sides get a chance to be heard and have their arguments weighed. It means that there is less chance that power will be concentrated to the point of stifling our voices. Keep in mind that the most efficient and conflict-free political system is a dictatorship.
So let’s not expect Congress to be free of disagreement and contention. The better approach is to manage the debate so it is civil, inclusive, serious and constructive. Yes, Congress sometimes has trouble managing itself, but that is a far better problem than if our system allowed for no conflict at all.

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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