Fall 2005 Newsletter
From the Director...
Dear Fellow Citizens:
During my career in Congress, I became increasingly concerned that many Americans knew so little about our institutions of government, especially Congress and the important role that it plays in our lives.
Since I established the Center on Congress six years ago, we have been moving across a broad front to instill in the citizenry an understanding and appreciation of our political heritage, to teach the robust American story — the full, truthful, unvarnished account of our successes, our failures, our ideals, our flaws.
In all our projects and programs at the Center, we give Americans a balanced, realistic view of Congress — one that acknowledges its imperfections but emphasizes the Founders' vision that Congress should be the branch of government most responsive to the people's needs and aspirations.
This edition of the Center's newsletter provides highlights of recent work in our extensive program to encourage civic education and citizen participation. I invite you to examine our resources and join in our effort to educate Americans about Congress' vital role in making our democracy function properly. I look forward to working with you to nurture a national movement to promote civic education in our nation's schools and to convert disengaged Americans into informed and active citizens.
With warm regards,
Lee H. Hamilton, Director
Although 57 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, younger and better–educated people are more positive about the institution than older and less–educated people, and most Americans see Congress as highly relevant, regarding its work as affecting their lives “most of the time” or “just about always.”
These are key findings of the first Survey on Congress, sponsored by the Center on Congress and released in August.
The Center will conduct the non–partisan national public opinion survey annually, filling a gap in knowledge about how citizens learn about Congress and evaluate its performance.
“For American democracy to work, citizens must have a close and productive relationship with their representatives in Congress,” said Center Director Lee Hamilton. “There's a lot of polling on how people feel about the president, but our Center's survey focuses attention on the vital link between citizens and those whom they elect to Congress.”
The survey reveals a clear “generation gap” in how the public rates Congress. Among Americans 35 and older, only 38 percent approve of Congress' performance. Among those ages 18 to 34, the approval rating is 54 percent.
One–fifth of survey respondents said their lives were “just about always” affected by congressional decisions, and another 36 percent said Congress' decisions affect them “most of the time.” Also, the survey found that the public prefers the president and Congress to share equal responsibility for handling issues, such as the post–war situation in Iraq, the war on terrorism, the economy and education.
“The media's coverage of the federal government in Washington tends to focus on the actions of the President, but the survey shows that most Americans believe Congress should — and does — play an important role,” said Edward G. Carmines, Research Director of the Center on Congress and a professor of political science at Indiana University–Bloomington.
Education is a key factor that leads people to become more civically engaged. “The survey shows that in nearly all age groups, the more educated people are, the more likely they are to vote in elections and communicate about politics — both with their representatives and with their friends.”
The survey results suggest that civic education programs that are designed to provide information about the role of democratic institutions such as Congress can foster better informed, more politically involved citizens.
“This initial survey of the public's knowledge of and attitudes toward Congress raises a number of questions we will study more closely in the Center's subsequent annual surveys,” said Hamilton. “In our representative democracy, Congress must reflect the views and interests of the American people as it frames the laws of the land, so it really does matter what people think about Congress. It's crucial that we understand what is at the core of the public's negative views of Congress, and that we develop strategies for combating public cynicism and disapproval of the institution.”
The survey findings are based on telephone interviews of more than 1400 people from November 2004 through January of this year. Interviews were conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of California–Berkeley. Questions were crafted by the Center on Congress' Carmines, and survey data were analyzed by Carmines and two Ph.D. candidates at Indiana University, Jessica C. Gerrity and Michael W. Wagner.
The survey focused on the following topics: congressional approval, citizens' understanding of civic duty, civic engagement, where people get their information about Congress, and public preferences regarding how Congress should handle various contemporary issues.
The full report on the survey is at http://www.centeroncongress.org
The Center is known for its innovative use of internet–based simulations and other e–learning tools that explain Congress to students in a dynamic way, and now we have added a tenth interactive module to our website. Titled “The Many Roles of a Member of Congress,” it takes students through a typically hectic day in the life of a congressman, showing the remarkable range of a member's work in Washington and at home, from helping a constituent get her Social Security check to working to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
What members of Congress do on a daily basis is a mystery to most people. This module gives an overview of members' various roles — from national legislator and investigator to constituent helper, educator and civic promoter. Interactive sections go through a typical day in Washington and then show quite different roles back home. Also, students can try their hand at sorting out some of the challenges facing a new member of Congress.
Among the other e–learning modules on the Center website are “Public Criticisms of Congress,” “How a Member Decides to Vote,” and “Getting Involved.” To use these and other titles, go into the “Learn About Congress” section on the website and click on “E–learning modules.”
The website has a wealth of other information about Congress and government for students and teachers, including extensive “Congress Q & A” and “Congressional Glossary” sections and an inventory of books and online resources about Congress.
The Center is joining forces with the Library of Congress in an educational initiative that will promote classroom use of the Library's vast resources available on the Internet and also make more teachers aware of the Center's highly regarded e–learning tools that explain Congress in a lively way.
Through its “American Memory” program, the Library has put online some 10 million items on American history and culture. The eclectic trove includes resources such as records of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, selections from the papers of congressional giants such as Calhoun and Webster, political cartoons and much more on Congress, politics and law. (See http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/)
To help teachers use these historical resources in the classroom, the Library has developed the Adventure of the American Mind project, which involves more than two dozen institutions across the country. The Center is now bringing its online civic education expertise into the Adventures of the American Mind effort. We will develop new e–learning modules on Congress that incorporate material from the Library's American Memory program. Our aim will be to blend information on how Congress works with specific Library resources in a visually engaging, interactive, easy–to–use format that will help teachers make the subject matter “come alive” for their students.
“We see this as a great opportunity to use the Library's rich and varied storehouse of information with our Center's own e–learning content to create a unique resource that teachers can use to engage students in civics,” said Center Director Lee Hamilton.
Development of the new Library–Center resources is going on now; the next phase of work will be field–testing with teachers and curriculum coordinators. Watch for updates as we move forward with this groundbreaking new venture.
Concerned that the public needs to have a clearer understanding of how the work of Congress impacts every community and every individual in America, the Center has launched an initiative to assist print and broadcast journalists who want to devote more attention to coverage of Congress.
“I recognize that it is a tall order asking media to cover Congress more, and more in–depth,” said Center Director Lee Hamilton. “Many other subjects demand their time and attention. But for our system of representative democracy to function well, journalists must provide information to help citizens gauge whether their elected officials in Washington are performing competently and honestly, and to help them appreciate more fully the importance of citizen engagement.”
In the spring, the Center hosted a program in Indianapolis for journalists that featured a panel of editors, reporters and other experts with many years of experience covering Capitol Hill for national and regional media. The panelists gave practical advice to help journalists produce stories about Congress that would interest the local audience, and also help improve public understanding of the institution.
The experts' panel included: Ken Bode, former broadcast journalist for NBC, CNN and PBS, now a professor at DePauw University; Catalina Camia of USA Today (formerly Washington Editor for Gannett News Service); Nolan Walters, a veteran of Knight Ridder newspapers, now Director of Programs for the National Press Foundation; and Maggie Balough Hillery, former editor of the Austin American–Statesman, now a professor and publisher of The Sagamore, the student–operated news organization at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
The Center anticipates conducting another seminar for journalists in early 2006 in Washington, geared to media in the nation's capital. Working with the Center to develop the seminar is the National Press Foundation, which provides professional development programs for journalists nationwide.
Also this year, the Center, in conjunction with the Close Up Foundation and C–SPAN television, produced a two–part program on “The Media and Congress.” These programs brought leading journalists and academics before audiences of high school students for a lively discussion of topics such as how the media could do a better job of covering Congress, how more citizens could try to be better–informed about Congress, and what Congress could do to make itself more interesting for the media to cover and for the public to follow.
Panelists for the first program were Ron Elving of National Public Radio, Jackie Calmes of the Wall Street Journal and Center Director Lee Hamilton. The second program featured Paul Kane of Roll Call, former CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter, now a professor at the University of Delaware; and Furman University professor Danielle Vinson, author of the book Local Media Coverage of Congress and its Members.
Since 2001, the Center has teamed with Close Up and C–SPAN to produce a number of programs featuring members of Congress, state legislators, journalists and representatives from the academic community in Q&A sessions with selected high school and college students.
To help members of the Hispanic community become more fully engaged participants in America's civic culture, the Center will use a grant from the SBC Foundation to create a Spanish–language, Web–based learning program on the history, responsibilities and importance of Congress.
“Thanks to the SBC Foundation's support, we will be able to develop a Web site with interactive, multi–media content that will help Hispanics and Latinos learn more about Congress and the importance of civic participation,” said Center Director Lee Hamilton. “This educational initiative will expand the Center's efforts to reach out to and serve our remarkably diverse country.”
The SBC Foundation is the philanthropic arm of SBC Communications Inc. The $92,625 grant is an extension of SBC Communications' commitment to help bring education and training opportunities to Hispanic communities.
The new Web site will complement the Center's existing English–language online educational resources.
Expanding our civic education efforts to the latest means of electronic mass communication, the Center is now making Director Lee Hamilton's commentaries on Congress and civic affairs available in audio format on iTunes.com and on a Weblog at http://centeroncongress.org/center-blog
“I'm excited about the potential for internet podcasting and the blog to help us get more people thinking and talking about how Congress could serve our country better,” said Hamilton.
Drawing on his 34 years' service in the U.S. House of Representatives and his broad knowledge of international affairs and domestic policy, Hamilton posts commentaries that examine the good and bad of Congress and challenge Americans to be informed and active citizens. Sometimes he explains why Congress works the way it does, other times he suggests ways Congress could be improved or reformed.
To access the podcasts on iTunes, search in the podcasts section under the “Politics” category for “Lee Hamilton Comments on Congress.” There is no charge to download the iTunes software or to hear Hamilton's podcasts.
“Every day we see how hard it is to build consensus to solve problems in our large and diverse nation,” said Hamilton. “I invite everyone to listen to the podcasts, read my blog, and give me feedback about how politicians inside the Beltway and citizens in the heartland can promote rational discourse, fair dealing and tolerance of different views. That's what we need in order to bring Americans together to advance our shared ideals.”
Lee Hamilton's book, How Congress Works and Why You Should Care was recognized as “Outstanding” by members of the 2005 University Press Books Committee. This rating is awarded to titles with “exceptional editorial content” that are “essential editions” to most school and public library collections.
Published by Indiana University Press and aimed at the general reader, the book explains in non–technical terms how Congress works, how it impacts people's lives, and why citizen engagement is important. It has been described as “an owner's manual for citizens interested in their Congress.”
The Books Committee is composed of practicing professionals from the American Association of School Libraries (AASL) and the Public Library Association (PLA), two divisions of the American Library Association. The Committee reviewed several hundred books published by university presses. Books Committee member Antoinette Negro, who is chair of AASL, described How Congress Works as “a readable and objective view of the “First Branch” of government, which the author sees as the basis of representative democracy. More importantly, the book is a guide to getting involved as a means of overcoming apathy and skepticism of the political process.”
Another Committee member, Therese M. Feicht of New York, wrote this of the book: “Clearly, concisely and eloquently, former U.S. House of Representative Lee Hamilton explains the role of Congress, how it works, its impact, public criticism of it and key ways it could work better.”
To order How Congress Works, contact Indiana University Press at (800) 842-6796 or http://iupress.indiana.edu.
Center Director Lee Hamilton was a featured speaker at the Congressional Conference on Civic Education, which brought hundreds of civic education activists to Washington from Sept. 24–26.
“If we want this great country to become an ever–more perfect union, we must arm our young people with the knowledge of history, and the knowledge of how to be active citizens,” Hamilton told the conference, which included delegations from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“We need to know, and teach, the responsibilities of citizenship: staying informed, volunteering, speaking out, asking questions, writing letters, signing petitions, joining organizations, building consensus, working in ways small and large to improve our neighborhoods and communities, and to enrich the quality of life for all citizens.”
This was the third of five planned annual Congressional Conferences on Civic Education, which aim to help strengthen our democracy by furthering the general public's engagement in the civic and political affairs of the nation.
The conferences are sponsored by the Alliance for Representative Democracy, a collaborative project of the Center on Congress, the Center for Civic Education and the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Alliance is a non–partisan initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education by act of Congress.
The Alliance's “Representative Democracy in America: Voices of the People” project is designed to educate Americans about the critical relationship between government and the people it serves. The project introduces citizens, particularly young people, to the representatives, institutions and processes that serve to realize the goal of a government of, by and for the people.
By engaging the public through state action teams, the series of Alliance conferences has initiated a national movement to enact strategic plans for strengthening civic education at the state and local levels. In the first two years, state delegations' activities have included conducting benchmark surveys to assess the landscape of civic education policy, holding state summits, developing broad–based statewide coalitions, and introducing supportive legislation designed to improve time and policy requirements for the teaching of civics and government.
Conference participants include state legislators, representatives of governors, state superintendents and other state officials, influential civic education leaders, and representatives from national education and related organizations, federal agencies, and Congress.
For more information see www.representativedemocracy.org
Also at this conference, Center on Congress Research Director Edward G. Carmines presented the findings of the Center's inaugural Survey on Congress, a non–partisan public opinion survey that will be conducted annually to fill a gap in knowledge about how citizens learn about Congress and evaluate its performance. (For details on the Survey, see earlier article in this newsletter.)
Center Director Lee Hamilton is the 2005 recipient of the “Citizen of the Year Award,” given by the National Conference on Citizenship and announced at NCoC's annual conference held Sept. 19 in Washington.
NCoC is a federally chartered non–profit, non–partisan organization whose mission is “to encourage ever more effective participation in citizenship activities and to promote a spirit of cooperation on the part of all citizens.” Founded in 1946 to sustain the high level of civic participation seen in the U.S. during World War II, NCoC was granted a federal charter by unanimous Act of Congress in 1953.
Each year, NCoC honors a private citizen with a record of extraordinary achievement in the three areas that are NCoC's particular focus: strengthening American history and civics education; community, national and public service; and political and civic engagement.
NCoC Chairman Craig Turk described Hamilton as a “dream candidate” for the Citizen of the Year Award, because of his wide–ranging efforts to contribute to the public good. An excerpt from the Award citation for Hamilton:
He is tireless in his work to promote a better public understanding of the Congress, as Director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University.
He is a leader in bringing key sectors together to engage in a non–partisan discourse on public policy issues that affect our country and world, as President and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
He is a strong advocate of congressional redistricting reform, strengthening ethics rules, and fixing the broken budget process.
He talks a lot about the importance of regular and authentic dialogue with the public to the health of our democracy.
[He] is an example of everything we are trying to promote in service — having served in the Congress for 34 years, having been a volunteer to chair and co–chair important commissions, and having maintained an interest in furthering the public good throughout his entire life, even after his retirement from the Congress.
What is remarkable about this man is that we are honoring him for his outstanding contributions in areas that relate to fostering a stronger citizenry in the United States, when he is even better known for his work on international affairs.
He served as the Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs for many years and was known in the Congress as a man of great integrity, intelligence and effectiveness.
We also honor him today for the work for which he is now best known — to help protect the security of our country as Vice Chair of the highly successful National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, popularly known as the “9/11 Commission.”
Accepting the honor, Hamilton told the audience, “I share this award with everyone in this auditorium, and with the people across the nation who are strengthening our democracy through education, awareness and service.”
“Public service is a stimulating, proud, and lively enterprise,” he continued. “The call of public service is one of the highest you will hear or your country and community can make. The reward is a deeply felt satisfaction that a contribution has been made to the direction and success of our country — a contribution to a good greater than ourselves.... Our task is to make sure that more people answer that call, and that more people fulfill the promise and opportunity of life in this country. Our task is to give meaning to the words we live by, like “democracy” and “opportunity” and “freedom.”
NCoC's annual conference, held this year at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, drew more than 450 leaders and activists in the civics movement — non–profit, foundation and corporate executives; officials in state and local government; representatives from the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the federal government; and teachers and students. For more information, see www.ncoc.net.
About the Center
The Center on Congress is a non–partisan, educational institution established in 1999 to help improve the public's understanding of Congress and to encourage civic engagement. The Center offers an extensive array of programs, projects and resources that foster an informed electorate which understands our system of government and participates in civic life. These include: print publications; Web–based, interactive modules and other online learning tools in English and Spanish; commentaries for newspapers, radio stations, podcasts and a Weblog; video and television in the classroom resources; survey research; teacher awards; and seminars, conferences, and a lecture series.
The Center on Congress
1315 E. 10th St.,Suite 320
Bloomington, IN 47405
Phone: (812) 856-4706 Fax: (812) 856-4703
Newsletter editor: Phil Duncan