Congress, Presidents, and American Politics: Fifty Years of Writings and Reflections

Congress, Presidents, and American Politics: Fifty Years of Writings and Reflections

by Lee H. Hamilton


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Congress, Presidents, and American Politics: Fifty Years of Writings and Reflections by Lee H. Hamilton

When Lee H. Hamilton joined Congress in 1965 as a US Representative from southern Indiana, he began writing commentaries for his constituents describing his experiences, impressions, and developing views of what was right and wrong in American politics. He continued to write regularly throughout his 34 years in office and up to the present. Lively and full of his distinctive insights, Hamilton’s essays provide vivid accounts of national milestones over the past fifty years: from the protests of the Sixties, the Vietnam War, and the Great Society reforms, through the Watergate and Iran-Contra affairs, to the post-9/11 years as the vice chairman of the 9/11 commission. Hamilton offers frank and sometimes surprising reflections on Congress, the presidency, and presidential character from Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. He argues that there are valuable lessons to be learned from past years, when Congress worked better than it does now. Offering history, politics, and personal reflections all at once, this book will appeal to everyone interested in understanding America of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253020864
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/18/2016
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar atIndiana University. He was a member of the US House of Representatives for 34 yearsandVice Chair of the 9/11 Commission. In2015, Hamilton was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.He is author of many books, includingHow Congress Works and Why You Should Care(IUP, 2004) andStrengthening Congress(IUP, 2009).

Read an Excerpt

Congress, Presidents, and American Politics

By Lee H. Hamilton

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2016 Lee H. Hamilton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02097-0


THE JOHNSON YEARS (1965–68) A Remarkable Time to Begin in Congress

THE NOVEMBER 1964 ELECTION THAT BROUGHT ME TO CONGRESS was also the Lyndon Johnson landslide over Barry Goldwater. The four years that I would serve in Congress during the Johnson years — in the 89th and 90th Congresses — were a memorable, tumultuous time.

Legislation came at us very quickly. I was sworn into office on January 4, 1965, and by April we had passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the first of sixty major bills we passed that Congress. President Johnson felt he had a clear mandate from the election, and he was poised to strike. Much of the legislation had been developed by President Kennedy, so Johnson had an agenda handed to him. And many of the major bills were fully aired and, to Johnson's mind, fully settled during the campaign. So it was full speed ahead.

The 89th was a Congress in which the president clearly took the lead, and Johnson was relentless in pursuing his agenda and in his follow-up with Congress. He had great energy and focus, and a thorough knowledge of the institution and its members. He enjoyed the legislative process and had been involved in it for much of his life. He was constantly on the phone to members of Congress, making dozens of calls every day. Like other members I was cornered by Johnson on several occasions, his index finger poking against my chest as he told me why a bill needed to be passed. The question on his mind was always, How do I get your vote? Johnson was a dealmaker and he used the full powers of his office — which were considerable — to close the deal, whether it was promising a federal building or bridge for your district, offering you a trip overseas, or appointing someone you knew to an office. Anything he needed to do, he'd do.

He was proud of the accomplishments of the 89th Congress, and at the end of the two years hosted a reception at the White House for what he called "the fabulous 89th," saying its record exceeded that of any previous Congress. Impressive as the accomplishments were, I did have some reservations. At midsession I wrote the president, saying that it might be a "time to pause" in the legislative flurry. We were passing a lot of major legislation — aid to education, Medicare, War on Poverty — all of broad magnitude, and I was concerned about implementation. I took numerous trips back home, almost every weekend, to hold public meetings with constituents to discuss what we were doing, and there was clear skepticism about the rush of legislation. It took the 1966 elections, when the Democrats lost several seats in the House, to slow us down.

I had a good personal relationship with President Johnson. He took a special interest in me as a new member of Congress, for reasons I never fully understood — perhaps he overestimated the significance of my being president of the incoming House class. He was always accessible and open to my requests, and once he even came out to my district for a campaign appearance, which was an unusual thing for a president to do for a member of the House. Later in his term I offered one of the first amendments in the House to reduce funding for the Vietnam War. Our effort wasn't successful, but it received more votes than expected. It so happened that I went to the White House that evening for a reception. President Johnson came directly over as soon as he saw me. I still remember the disappointed look in his eyes when he said, "Lee, how could you do that to me?" But to his great credit, we stayed on good terms. As a master politician he knew that down the road he would need my vote or support on something else.

I actually had a less direct relationship with the House leadership early on. In the 1960s the general advice from the congressional leadership to new members was to keep your mouth shut your first few terms in Congress, and we were told — not altogether in jest — that the senior members didn't even learn your name until your third or fourth term. In my second term in office, in January 1967, I did receive a phone call from Speaker John McCormack — a surprising "Lee, how are you?" call, since I don't think he would have recognized me if I walked unannounced into his room. He said a vote for Speaker was coming up in the caucus and he hoped I'd be with him. I told him I'd be voting for Mo Udall, and then I heard the phone slam down. McCormack was reelected Speaker, but he never held my vote against me. And from then on he did know who I was. He was never vindictive, always nice, and ready to be helpful. Both he and Johnson showed me that to be a successful politician you don't hold grudges, and you think about the battles ahead, not those in the past.

The Democratic and Republican leaders in the House — Speaker McCormack, Majority Leader Carl Albert, and Minority Leader Gerald Ford — were all political professionals who got along well. They had regular meetings, and there was a sense of civility and accommodation. Make no mistake: there was partisanship. The leaders were strong and articulate advocates for their party caucuses. But the overall sense of working together for the good of the nation was quite unlike the way it is in Congress today.

I was impressed not only with the leadership but also with the quality of the members of the House — their integrity, their competence, their many abilities. I remember thinking to myself that these people were good, and that I was both honored and challenged to be among them.

At one point early on, when I was still learning my way around Congress, I was managing a minor bill on the House floor for the Democrats and made a small parliamentary mistake that would have doomed its fate. At the direction of the Republican leadership, Bill Bray, a prominent Republican also from Indiana, came over to me, put his arm on my shoulder, and gently pointed out how I could fix my blunder — and this was on a bill they opposed. They didn't want even a new Democratic member of Congress to look foolish. It is simply unimaginable that something like that could happen in Congress today.

The 89th Congress was a remarkable time to start a career in Congress. It was a two-year period of accomplishments unlike anything seen since. It was also a time when the public had a high regard for Congress. I don't think I appreciated it enough initially, thinking that maybe that was the way it always worked in Congress. But as the Congress progressed, I came to recognize the uniqueness of what we had done.

The 89th Congress: Key Facts

• January 4, 1965, through October 22, 1966, during the first two years of the second Johnson administration

• House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats, 295 to 140

• Senate controlled by the Democrats, 68 to 32

• 810 bills enacted

• Major accomplishments included passing the Older Americans Act, Medicare and Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, the Water Quality Act, a minimum wage increase, the Freedom of Information Act, the Highway Safety Act, and the Financial Institutions Supervisory Act; and setting up the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation

• Support for President Johnson's position in the House: Democrats 82 percent, Republicans 46 percent; in the Senate: Democrats 73 percent, Republicans 54 percent

The 90th Congress: Key Facts

• January 10, 1967, through October 14, 1968, during the last two years of the second Johnson administration

• House of Representatives controlled by the Democrats, 246 to 187 (2 other)

• Senate controlled by the Democrats, 64 to 36

• 640 bills enacted

• Major accomplishments included passing the Investment Tax Credit Act, the Public Broadcasting Act, the Air Quality Control Act, the Wholesome Meat Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, an increase in Social Security benefits, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (housing), the Truth in Lending Act, the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act, the Housing and Urban Development Act, the National Trails System Act, and the Gun Control Act; and Senate ratification of the first US-USSR bilateral treaty

• Support for President Johnson's position in the House: Democrats 79 percent, Republicans 55 percent; in the Senate: Democrats 69 percent, Republicans 60 percent


In the 1964 campaign, my first campaign for Congress, I had several debates in southern Indiana on Medicare, as well as on federal aid to education — those were the two big domestic issues. So I was reasonably familiar with the main questions and controversies about Medicare when I came to Congress. Often my debates were with doctors rather than with other politicians. The American Medical Association was the main group opposed to Medicare — calling it socialized medicine — and they found doctors to debate me in various forums.

I was only in Congress for six months before Medicare came up for consideration and for a vote, and it was a good learning experience for me. Two lessons stand out:

I was impressed by the way Chairman Wilbur Mills and ranking member John Byrnes handled the bill on the House floor. They had complete command of the details, and the debate consisted basically of Mills answering questions about every aspect of the bill, with Byrnes's help. It was a good lesson about the importance of mastering the details of a bill — if you are bringing a bill to the floor, you need to know more about it than anyone else.

I also learned a lot from Wilbur Mills about consensus building and respect for minority views. The Democrats at that time had an overwhelming majority in the House — more than two to one — and many of us felt that we should just pass the Medicare bill we wanted. But Mills argued persuasively that it would be unwise not to give some significant concessions to the Republicans. He recognized that what matters is not just passing a bill but also its implementation, and that there would be a much better chance of successful implementation if something passed with bipartisan support. The bill received many Republican votes on final passage, making it a significant bipartisan accomplishment.

Mills was constantly talking to members of both parties about legislation he was developing, and if he spotted a potential problem he would go back to his committee to try to find a way to fix it — which meant that the bills he brought to the floor almost always passed by wide margins and with strong bipartisan support. He was the most impressive legislator I saw during my years in Congress, and to my mind the greatest legislator of the twentieth century, responsible for shaping a broad range of our nation's basic legislation, from Social Security and the tax code to trade agreements and welfare.

April 28, 1965: "The Facts about the Medicare Bill"
Report from Washington
Vol. I, No. 7

On April 8, 1965, the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority of 313 to 115 passed an historic bill providing for medical care for persons sixty-five years or older.

The bill actually provides

1. basic hospital insurance under Social Security;

2. voluntary supplementary health benefits through private insurance in part paid by government; and

3. an expanded medical assistance program for the needy.

In addition, the bill provides for improvements in the Social Security program itself, including a general increase in benefits of 7 percent.

I voted wholeheartedly in favor of this bill because it is of monumental significance to all residents of the Ninth District.

Because the subject of medical care for the aged has been under discussion for so long, I think you are entitled to a thorough review of the issues involved.

The Problem

There was unanimous agreement in the Congress that a real problem exists. Persons over sixty-five years of age are a growing segment of our society. Nearly one out of every ten Americans is in this age group and their numbers are increasing every year. Medical care is a serious matter of concern to all citizens, but this group faces special problems:

Less Income: Of the eighteen million persons over sixty-five, more than half have incomes of less than $1000 a year. The average for two-person families is just $2530. This level of income will buy very little hospital care today.

Fewer Assets: One-third of the persons over sixty-five, numbering six million Americans, have no assets at all. Half of all persons over sixty-five have assets amounting to less than $1,000. Yet, when a husband or wife is hospitalized, half the aged couples today have total medical bills exceeding $800 a year.

Ill Longer: Persons over sixty-five use three times as much hospital care as younger people. When they go to the hospital they stay twice as long for each illness on the average.

Costs Hurt: Since their productive years ended, bringing sharp cuts in annual income, these persons have experienced great increases in medical costs. Those costs have increased 63 percent since 1950. In that same period, the cost of hospital rooms has gone up 154 percent. Few older persons have savings adequate to meet these mounting costs that, as one grows older, cannot be avoided.

No amount of oratory about self-reliance is going to keep our older citizens from getting sick. Nor will it put money in the savings accounts of retired persons who have exhausted their savings and can't get a job.

Weighing the Proposals

Some constituents wrote that not enough study had been given to this legislation.

I would disagree and point to the fact that rarely in the history of the Congress has any piece of legislation been more carefully studied. In the 85th, 86th, 87th, and 88th and the present 89th Congress, the Ways and Means Committee held public hearings for forty-six days, heard 641 witnesses who presented thirteen volumes and 7601 pages of testimony, accepted hundreds of additional statements, and devoted seventy-seven more days to private discussion of the legislation.

Such a record can hardly be held up as evidence of undue haste on the part of Congress.

The Real Issue

The legislation reported by the Ways and Means Committee for consideration by the full House brought together the best features of all the proposals. The major portions of the legislation were accepted by Republicans and Democrats alike, with no debate.

All the testimony, the research, the probing and weighing of all the various factors that were important to such a hugely important bill have borne fruit.

Congressman Byrnes, the chief Republican spokesman, said, "Let me point out at the very beginning, that we on the Committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, are in general agreement with respect to the provisions in the bill as reported by the Committee relating to the old-age and survivors system, the disability system, and even as far as the Kerr-Mills system is concerned ... my objection to the Committee bill is not on the basis of cost. My objection is to the means used to finance the benefits; namely, the payroll tax."

We Chose the Conservative Course

Wilbur Mills (D. Ark.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, argued persuasively that the payroll tax was the surest, most conservative path to prevent a program whose benefit payments would become a runaway monster draining the federal treasury. He said, "The Social Security ... system is actuarially sound and has been for over thirty years. How many times have we had a balanced budget of the general fund of the treasury into which the gentleman [Mr. Byrnes] proposes to put this [Medicare] system? I am trying to say this, to emphasize the point I have made repeatedly — a payroll tax will tend to limit the growth of the benefit and will tend to do so to a greater extent than will be the case if that benefit cost is placed in the general fund of the treasury."


I went to Congress supporting the Vietnam War. It was the first war I had to deal with as a member of Congress, and I felt the need to delve into it in great detail. I spent a lot of time trying to understand what was happening there — through various reports, briefings, and discussions with colleagues, as well as through visits to the region. By October 1966 I was beginning to see more clearly the limits of military power in dealing with the complexities of Vietnam.


Excerpted from Congress, Presidents, and American Politics by Lee H. Hamilton. Copyright © 2016 Lee H. Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The Johnson Years (19651968): A Remarkable Time to Begin in Congress
Passing Medicare
The Other War in Vietnam
Thanksgiving 1966
Luncheon at the White House
Visit to the CIA
President Johnson Off the Record
Urban Riots
The Regular Order
The U.S. Role in the World
Senate Hearings on the Vietnam War
Civil Disorder after Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Assassination of Robert Kennedy

2. The Nixon Years (19691974): Accomplishments Amid Turmoil
Christmas at the Nixon White House
Changing the House Seniority System
Meeting with Student Protesters
Reducing the Voting Age
Setting up our System of Government
Reports on Trip to War Zone
The Pentagon Papers
Nixon's Trip to China
Evaluation of the Apollo Program
Inauguration 1973
The Costs of the Vietnam War
The Vice President's Resignation
The House Judiciary Committee and Impeachment
After Watergate

3. The Ford Years (19741976): A Needed Respite
The Pardon
As We Leave Vietnam
The Middle Class
The Women's Rights Movement
Democracy and Capitalism
Big Government
Congress and Foreign Policy

4. The Carter Years (19771980): Intra-party Discord
Inauguration Day 1977
Human Rights
Reorganizing the Federal Bureaucracy
The Panama Canal Treaty
An Assessment of the Carter Administration
The Congressional Budget Process
A Good Word For America
The Gasoline Shortage
The Iranian Hostage Crisis

5. The Reagan Years (19811988): Letting the Democratic Process Work
President Reagan Looks at Social Security
Improving Intelligence Analysis
The Week the Government Stopped
Reflections on the 97th Congress
The Military Balance
Religion in Politics
How a Member Decides
The Appeal of Congress
Our Constitutional Herit

What People are Saying About This

co-author of Congress under Fire - C. Lawrence Evans

A balanced treatment that does not assign the blame for current political dysfunction solely to members of Congress, donors, interest groups, or any other single cause.

author of Rivals for Power: Presidential-Congressional Relations - James A. Thurber

Lee Hamilton is a careful writer, and here he draws on his many years of public service in Congress, at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and on commissions and other special executive branch assignments. This is an original work stemming from the combination of his experience.

Senator Olympia Snowe

This book is a treasure trove of insightful, real-time commentaries from a consummate legislator highly respected by members of both parties. Hamilton's observations could not be more relevant today, as they illustrate how the political process can, in fact, be made to work; and that thoughtful, principled compromise in both the legislative and executive branches is a lynchpin for producing solutions and the best possible policy for America's future.

Chuck Quigley

This is a chronicle of a fascinating odyssey.It is a trip, not by the "wise Odysseus" from Troy to Ithaca, but the story of the more than fifty-year journey of the sage former congressman and senior statesman Lee Hamilton from the first of his thirty-four years in Congress during the Johnson Administration to the present day. . .One of the most remarkable and valuable characteristics of the work is that it is written at a level that is readily understandable by the average citizen for whom the newsletters it contains were written. It is essentially an exercise in civic education and enlightening not only for the general populace, but also for teachers and students of American government throughout the nation.

The Washington Post - David Ignatius

This superb collection of Lee Hamilton’s commentaries about Washington reminds us why he was a great bipartisan leader for half a century: he understood politics, and he always put his country first. Here, readers can see how Hamilton kept his balance and good sense, from Vietnam to Watergate to Iraq. If you want an inside look at how the federal government really works, read this powerful book.

Senator Evan Bayh

Lee Hamilton offers a sweeping and insightful history of America's governmental structure, contemporary politics, and the responsibility of citizens in our representative democracy. Given his 34 years of first-hand experience, a reader could not ask for a more informed guide through the controversies and debate that shaped the United States during the second half of the 20th Century. This work will be valuable to anyone interested in understanding our political/governmental past, contemplating how we might make the future better, and grasping what each of us can do to be informed and effective citizens.

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