Lee Hamilton: Governing is about priorities – and how to establish them

I still remember a piece of advice I got not long after entering Congress. It came from a prominent journalist as we were talking about the bewildering array of issues Congress faced. Every day, he told me, I should ask myself a simple question: “What’s the most important thing to be doing today?”

It may be the toughest problem in politics – what do you focus on at any given moment? The number of challenges facing policy-makers is staggering.

Let’s start with economic issues. Lawmakers wrestle with the economic growth rate, the need to provide broad-based economic opportunity, the perception that too many Americans are being left behind, the need for infrastructure investment, and a federal debt that has grown out of control.

Domestic and foreign-policy challenges are no less daunting: immigration and civil rights protections; quality and availability of health care; the cost of higher education. Internationally, there’s everything from dealing with powerful adversaries like Russia and China to global issues like climate change and terrorism.

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Politically, we face serious challenges such as the disintegration of the political center; we’re not even sure if our system can meet the challenges confronting it.

The depth and breadth of the challenges we face show the depth and breadth of America’s abilities and ambitions. They are a symbol of all we have done and all we are trying to achieve. Our policymakers sit down with an impossible agenda every day and try to make progress on it.

So how do they establish priorities? You can’t solve problems like these alone. You need to find people who agree and can agree on approaches to resolving the problems. It’s not just asking, “What’s the biggest problem?” It’s asking, “What’s the biggest problem I can make progress on?”

In short, my journalist friend was on the mark. Maybe the best you can do each day is ask yourself if you’re putting your energy where it ought to be at that moment. It’s what makes governing such a bewildering, challenging job – and what lies at its heart.

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Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.