Thinking About the Future

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Wednesday, June 14, 2000
As a Member of Congress, I got pretty good at responding when people criticized the institution. Congress ignores the views of citizens? Actually, I liked to say, sometimes it pays too much attention to the latest polls. Congress is irrelevant to ordinary people's lives? Which federally funded highway, I'd reply, had my critic used to get to this meeting? 

But there was one reproach for which I had—and still have—no ready response. "You folks can't think beyond the next election," I was repeatedly told, and all I could do was nod my head in agreement. This comes to mind because Texas Governor George Bush has recently called for supplementing traditional Social Security with personal retirement accounts. Whatever you think of the idea itself, at least it's a concrete proposal, one that recognizes that the real risk is failing to reform Social Security now before the crunch from the baby boomers' retirement overwhelms the system. Nothing similar has come from Congress, which can barely bring itself to address the problem. The basic fact is that Congress-- and for that matter, the federal government– just is not very good at identifying and dealing with future challenges. Indeed, there is a raft of difficult questions that our nation's legislators ought to be dealing with, and are not. How can we ensure we have adequate food, energy, and water supplies well into the future? Will there be major consequences from our growing economic inequality? What problems will be posed by the growth of information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, or genetic engineering? What can be done to reduce the threat of new and reemerging diseases and the growing number of immune microorganisms? These are not pie-in-the-sky questions. They are issues that will affect the nature and quality of our lives very soon, and it would be much better not to have to address them when we're in a crisis. 

But a few years ago, a careful observer of Congress said something quite wise. The very worst thing about congressional service, he told me, is that Members never have time to put their feet on their desks, look out the window, and think about the long-term challenges coming at us and what to do about them. 

Why is this? Partly it has to do with the election cycle: Politicians face a constant press of campaigning and fund-raising, and campaigns for political office are pretty much endless these days. The same is true of the budget cycle: Our government works on a one-year cycle, which means that much of its time is dominated by putting together the budget, rather than on thinking long-term about problems that might affect it down the road. And when it's not trying to find its way out of the latest budget crisis, it is turning its attention to some immediate problem, whether it's relief for a wildfire in the Southwest or what to do about UN peacekeeping forces in Africa. Not surprisingly, constituents and media commentators reinforce this habit: They want action on the problems that confront them at the moment. 

So how do we promote more long-term thinking in Congress, and more of a willingness to grapple with the tough issues that face us beyond the next election? For one thing, I believe it would be helpful to require the President to report every few years on the critical challenges facing the nation in future decades. I also think that Congress must move to biennial budgeting. By enacting most budget legislation once every two years, instead of every year, it would reduce workloads and give federal agencies and Congress more time to look ahead to long-range needs. 

But above all, I think Members of Congress need encouragement to make long-range thinking a greater personal priority. The next time you happen to be at some event with your congressional representative, don't just criticize "Congress" for not thinking "beyond the next election." Ask your representative how much time he or she sets aside to look into the problems that will be confronting us in the next decade. And don't take a hem and a haw for an answer. 

(Lee 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.)