This week’s legislative action gives taxpayers a view of what Congress used to look like when it moved past partisan divide and got things done. For the most part the progress centered on the Omnibus spending bill that funds all agencies and programs of government. While the Omnibus is almost free of rhetorical nonsense, political messaging, and ideological complications the bill did accomplish something that Omnibus’ of the past also accomplished; it essentially funneled all lobbying down to one person, the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
When the regular order is adhered to budgets and appropriation bills (where the money is) are handled by various committees with specific agency oversight and knowledge; Defense Committee and subcommittees handle defense spending, the Agriculture Committee and subcommittees handle agricultural issues, and so on. The Omnibus certainly makes the lobbyist’s job easier and puts an enormous amount of spending power in the hands of one person.
While there is probably some kind of reelection strategy involved in the content of the Omnibus, Republicans have to be commended for what appears to be a major compromise away from the edicts of the far right conservative Party members. Most notable is the price tag: $1.2 trillion, a reasonable compromise from the $967 billion cap House Republicans agreed to in their budget and not much less than the $1.058 trillion both parties agreed to in the Budget Act of 2010.
So, with a budget under its belt and the budget limits already set for FY 2015, Congress can get down to other major issues. That, however, won’t protect the political and ideological issues from gridlock. Already, the Senate has stalled on extending emergency unemployment insurance on strict party lines minus the support for the bill by Senator Dean Heller, a Republican. Heller has another unemployment bill in the hopper but the content is not yet available. Will his bill warm up Senate Republicans to unemployment? Politics following the Senate rejection of the emergency unemployment funding may play a part in determining its outcome.
The bill also shows some concerns about China and takes action, even though it would be largely symbolic, to prohibit Chinese Officials from visiting NASA sites due to China’s recent space program strategies. Fortunately we saw nothing about sanctions on Iran which could have created Major problems for the US and allies negotiating to reign in Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Then there is another potential foreign policy problem; When Senators recently showed up in the Middle East with a different view of what the Administration is trying to accomplish it shows the foreign countries two things: that the President’s position is weak because some Members of Congress will not support it, and the more scary insight that nearly 50 years of bad blood between Iran and the US is being replaced with unexpectedly reasonable negotiations on an issue that concerns the world – Iran with a nuclear military capacity – Republican Senators are willing to rock that boat for purely political reasons.
So, while we can relax a bit knowing the bills are going to be paid, the vehicle for that demeanor, the Omnibus, shows us that the political games will continue.
Trust….But Definitely Verify
By Lee H. Hamilton
“…our society is in the midst of a crisis in trust.”
Of all the numbers thrown at us over the course of last year, one stands out for me. I hope we can avoid repeating it this year.
That number is 12. It’s the percentage of Americans in a December Quinnipiac poll who said they trust the government in Washington to do what is right most or all of the time. It’s a depressingly small number — especially compared to the 41 percent who say they “hardly ever” trust the government. This meshes with recent polls that echo a bleak truth: trust in government is at historically low levels.
That’s not all, though. Americans are feeling vulnerable and highly distrustful of both government and private-sector prying. More worrisome, a few months ago an AP poll found that fewer than a third of Americans trust one another. The poll’s message is clear: our society is in the midst of a crisis in trust.
This might seem like a touchy-feely concern, but it’s not. Trust is essential to our political system and our way of life. The belief that people and institutions will do what they say they will do is the coin of the realm in our society. It is what allows people to work together — in their daily interactions with others and in their communities, legislatures and Congress. Negotiation, compromise, collegiality, and the mechanisms our complex and diverse society depends on are impossible without trust. Trust is one of the medley of virtues that have allowed our institutions to develop and prosper, along with honesty, competence, responsibility, and civility.
A breakdown in trust between Congress and the executive branch invariably brings problems: the turmoil of the Vietnam War era, Watergate, Iran-Contra, our current budget travails. A society-wide lack of trust imposes real costs. It makes the drafting of laws and their implementation extremely difficult: government becomes more expensive because it requires more emphasis on regulations and enforcement.
In fact, you could argue that we see all around us the results of our trust deficit. Government dysfunction, an economy performing below its potential, public officials’ scandals and misdeeds, trusted institutions’ willingness to skirt the law and standards of good conduct, our social safety net under attack because people mistrust recipients — all of these speak to a society struggling as trust weakens.
Yet here’s a question. Do the polls match your experience? In my case, they do not. Trust still figures in my dealings with institutions and individuals, most of whom are good people trying to live a decent life and to be helpful to others. They deal with one another honorably and with care. I’m convinced that this is because, no matter what the polls say at the moment, the habits instilled by parents, schools, and a vast number of public and private institutions do not just disappear.
These habits include the experience of grappling with the challenges that representative democracy throws at us — and they serve as a reminder that we need trust in one another to make our national experiment in representative government work.
As idealistic or even naive as this may sound, we need to work toward more trust among our people and between people and their government. Some new laws might help, but the challenge is more basic than law can address. Higher standards of conduct at all levels of American life must become the norm. Trust may have weakened, but most of us do not see or experience a corrupt America. Even as we have become a larger, more diverse nation, a sense of community remains crucially important to make this country safe and secure for ourselves and our children.
We cannot take for granted our success at self-government over the centuries: the only invisible hand guiding and preserving our institutions is our collective will.
Events in recent years have given us plenty of reason to be distrustful. Clearly, healthy skepticism is warranted in the wake of the NSA revelations, the problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and other evidence of both government and corporate misbehavior. In the end, however, “trust but verify” is still the golden standard. Our ability to function and move forward as a society rests on trust. Think about it.
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.