Lee Hamilton -- Wielding a Weighty But Wan Pen

It has been more than a decade since Lee Hamilton left Congress after 34 years as a Democrat from Indiana. He was moderate in tone and meticulous in action. From the moment he arrived on Capitol Hill in 1964 with his trademark crew cut, Hamilton had a gift for understatement and a passion for ensuring Congress fulfills its responsibilities, as enshrined in the Constitution.

All of these qualities - while admirable in a public leader - can make for a drab writer. His passion, sadly, is unable to make the leap from his heart to the page of his latest book, "Strengthening Congress," due out in November from Indiana University Press.

Hamilton argues that Congress needs to buff up to take back power from the president and to restore the stature the Founding Fathers envisioned for it. The book provides useful context and history for understanding how Congress has gone flabby - years of rancor and division haven't helped.

"Over the last several decades, on issue after issue, Congress has slowly but inexorably ceded its constitutionally mandated responsibilities to the president," Hamilton writes. "Perhaps the most vivid example of this overall shift in power lies in the weightiest decision a government has to make: whether to go to war against another country."

His emphasis on the power-grab by presidents, while an historical concern, seems targeted at the abuses of the Bush White House, giving the book a dated feel even before it hits the shelves. But Hamilton, who now serves as president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, does outline other still relevant ways that Congress has ceded its powers to the president. These include devising the budget, fighting terrorism, setting environmental goals and developing international trade. "Congress, though not entirely supine, has been content to let the president take the political heat for actually leading," Hamilton writes.

He proposes ways to rectify the imbalance. Here's where the book becomes regrettably mundane with language to match. Among his proposals (and these double as dreary chapter headings): Reducing Excessive Partisanship, Strengthening Ethics Enforcement, Curbing the Influence of Lobbyists, Strengthening Citizen Participation. Now we're into textbook material that won't likely excite anyone outside a classroom - or perhaps inside.

Few former legislators have a legacy of such distinction and probity as Hamilton and such a depth of knowledge on his subject. Were it only possible to graft the pen of Jonathan Swift or Alexis de Tocqueville or even George Will onto his body.

By Steven E. Levingston |  August 19, 2009; 5:30 AM ET
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