Editorial February 7, 2014



As Lee Hamilton points out in his column this week; we think Congress has accomplished a lot, or at least seems to be working together what with the passage this week of the ‘Farm” bill and the recent Omnibus appropriations bill, but in comparison to past Congress’s its work this year is a poor showing.

What we have seen over the past year is low productivity due largely to an unwillingness of ideologues to move to the middle, a stubborn unwillingness to repair the Affordable Care Act but rather to cripple or repeal it, and what appears to be a lack of understanding of how the government impacts American lives for the good and how much should be spent on that. The first two examples are the reason for the lack of understanding.

 Hamilton points to the culprit; the lack of Regular Order which has defined the approach Congress has taken to pass laws over the years and keep unproductive actions at a minimum. The problem the current Congress has with the Regular Order may be that it works, but is work; not only time-consuming work but work requiring an agile mind, not a rigid philosophy, a willingness to give and take, not an unyielding philosophy, and the sense that the work must be done, not a philosophy that allows bills brought up for the singular purpose of creating political minefields in the mid-term elections. The hardest work for this Congress, however, may be that the Members would have to communicate with each other on the floor or off, dig deeply into the issues, develop compromises or effective arguments, and accept that you don’t win them all.

 The Regular Order has been modified by both parties at one time or the other and usually at a time when the legislation is ‘must-pass’ and the majority for passage is slim. So, facing some legislative chicanery is nothing new to either party and vilified by both when they are subject to it.

Why not change that?

 Congress functions on rules, a lot of them, and the rules can be changed as the Majority see fit and that is always a complaint by the Minority…until they become the Majority again, which history tells us will always happen. Why not make the Regular Order the only procedure Congress can follow? This would not be without some precedent; Pay-as-you-go, or PAYGO, is a procedure that, simplistically, requires spending cuts to balance increased spending or more taxes to cover those costs. It began in the 1980’s with the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget bills and was applied with earnest in the Budget Enforcement Act or 1990. PAYGO was an effective tool for President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich to get us to a budget surplus in 1999. While it was turned off from time-to-time it is now required procedure.

 Such could be the case with Regular Order; just as emergency off-budget spending is defined and allowed, the Regular Order could be suspended to address an emergency and then turned back on again.##


Hold the Congratulations for Congress

By Lee H. Hamilton

“Congress no longer seems to know how to run a budget process. Most of its members have never experienced the traditional method.”

Now that Congress has its immense, $1.1 trillion bipartisan funding bill in hand, Capitol Hill is breathing easier. They ended the specter of a government shutdown for the moment, and funded the federal budget for most of the year. The media has been commending Congress for finally doing its job.

This praise works only in the context of recent history, however. The bill that congressional leaders produced is hardly a triumph. Instead, it’s another example of Congress’s stubborn determination to deal itself out of the budgeting process. Let me explain.

In recent years, Congress has funded the federal government in one of two ways. Either it’s passed a “continuing resolution,” which is a stopgap measure to keep the government functioning with the same funding it had previously, or it’s passed huge omnibus bills like the one it just enacted. This most recent bill runs more than 1,500 pages.

Before this current budgeting era, however, Congress used procedures that put the ideals of representative democracy into practice. It divided its responsibilities into policy development, which was in the hands of its various “authorizing” committees; and establishing funding levels, which was done by the appropriations committees in the House and Senate. Once the President submitted his proposed budget, the appropriations committees and their subcommittees would meet, hammer out the issues, and fund the government according to the policies set by the authorizing committees. They would hold hearings, debate furiously, accept and reject scores — if not hundreds — of amendments, and ultimately produce a series of appropriations bills generally divided along federal department lines. These would go to the floor of each chamber, where they’d be debated again, and finally to a conference committee, where each side of Capitol Hill would have a final chance to weigh in.

The process didn’t work perfectly. It produced hiccups and grandstanding, and required a lot of negotiation and compromise. But it also spread the work of Congress among expert members, employed the capabilities of dedicated and knowledgeable legislators who knew the various departments and agencies of the federal government intimately, and provided for deliberation, open debate, accountability, and a reasonably democratic outcome. Rank-and-file members understood, grappled with, and took responsibility for what they produced and voted on.

No more. Continuing resolutions and omnibus bills lift responsibility from most members’ hands. They produce decisions, but not in an open, democratic process. They’re basically developed in secret by a handful of leaders and their allies and staff; allow very few, if any, amendments; sharply limit debate time; severely restrict members’ ability to study thousands of provisions; and require an up or down vote.

Most troubling, they’re larded with policy decisions that in the old days would have been debated by the authorizing committees. This most recent measure boosts funding for Head Start, prevents the President from transferring control of military drones from the CIA to the Defense Department, and bars postal officials from ending Saturday delivery — all policy decisions that should have had a robust debate, but won’t.

Of course, plenty of people in Washington like this. Congressional leaders have more power than if they had to defer to the judgment of the authorizing and appropriations committees. The White House likes it because it involves fewer people, making life simpler. Even some rank and file members like it, because it allows them to avoid making hard choices about individual programs.

Which is a problem. With omnibus bills, the truly difficult but crucial work that Congress needs to be doing doesn’t get done. It isn’t scrutinizing the budget of each department in sufficient detail to look for programs and line-items that have outlived their usefulness or that need more investment. It can’t examine and analyze difficult policy questions carefully. It won’t question whether entire agencies and even departments still serve the purposes they were designed for. It isn’t even bothering to look beyond discretionary spending to consider reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which is where most federal spending goes.

Congress no longer seems to know how to run a budget process. Most of its members have never experienced the traditional method. They just know how to hold their noses and vote up or down.

Experts Surveyed on Congress’s Performance Give the Insitution a “C-minus” for 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind., Feb. 3 — A group of academic experts asked to assess Congress’s performance concludes that it is subpar, a C-minus, and that prospects are not good for it to get better anytime soon.

“The experts deliver a rather pessimistic assessment of Congress’s ability to function as a major policymaking institution in our American representative democracy,” said Indiana University political scientist Edward G. Carmines, who is Director of Research for the Center on Congress at Indiana University.

“We asked, ‘Overall, how would you assess the legislative record of Congress over this past year?’” said Carmines. “Eighty percent gave Congress either a D or an F.

“We asked them whether there were any signs from the past year that Congress would be working better in the future. Seventy percent expected no change. Of those who expected a change, 12.5 percent thought it would get worse. So if you put these two together, 82.5 percent thought Congress would either not improve, or would actually get worse.”

This is the eighth year that the non-partisan Center has conducted its experts’ survey. “Our interest is not to dwell on past shortcomings, but to develop a sense of what areas are most in need of improvement, as well as what areas are generally handled well by Congress,” explained Center Director Lee Hamilton.

The experts’ overall ratings of Congress have never been lofty; the highest mark, C-plus, was reached in 2008 and 2010. The grade for 2013 pulls Congress down to where it was in 2011, another C-minus year.

Data on 2013 were collected online in December and early January, after the first session of the 113th Congress ended; the survey elicited the opinions of a select group of 40 top academic experts on Congress from around the country.

In one of the survey’s open-ended questions, an expert commented, “This Congress ranks as the most dysfunctional ever, ducking or denying major economic and social issues while engaged in hyper-partisan actions and the failure to compromise. The problem is not the government itself, or the failure of the U.S. Constitution, as some are suggesting. It is a clash of ideologies engaged more in propaganda than governance.”

“One of the questions we asked is, ‘How well does Congress rely on facts and data to reach its decisions?”’ said Carmines. “A full 60 percent of the respondents graded Congress either D or F on that. Not one respondent gave an A grade, and only two respondents gave a B. So, that’s a rather dismal assessment.

“A parallel question we asked: ‘How well does Congress rely on opinions of recognized experts to reach its decisions?’ Fifty-four percent graded Congress either a D or F.

“Congress is increasingly seen as a venue for the expression of competing ideological viewpoints,” said Carmines. “The experts think that many members of Congress are so driven by ideology and special interests that there is no room for experts or data or evidence to influence decisions.

“If you’re looking to Congress to confront and deal with major social and economic problems, and to compromise in a way that leads to action on them, then Congress is a great disappointment,” said Carmines.

On a range of other performance measures, Congress’s grades slumped well below average. On “keeping the role of special interests within proper bounds,” “generally fulfilling its national policymaking responsibilities,” and “considering the long-term implications of policy issues, not just short-term,” Congress got Ds. Grades of D-plus were given to Congress on “exercising its proper role in determining the federal budget,” “focusing on the key issues facing the country,” and “representing the interests of the American people.”

For the second time, the experts’ survey included questions about civility in Congress. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents described incivility in Congress as “a major problem” in 2013; that’s up significantly from 2012, when 46 percent of the experts saw incivility as a major problem.

“We asked them whether the incivility in Congress would improve, stay about the same, or get worse in the next few years,” Carmines said. “Ninety-five percent said it would either stay the same, or get worse.

“Then we asked about polarization in Congress. A full 80 percent thought that congressional polarization has increased over the past several years. And looking ahead to the next few years, 95 percent felt that Congress would remain as polarized as today, or become even more polarized.”

The survey included questions asking the experts to separately evaluate each of the two chambers of Congress. “Consistently, the House is rated lower in its performance than the Senate,” Carmines said. “On the question of ‘keeping excessive partisanship in check,’ the Senate’s grade was poor (D), but the House’s was worse (F). On the question, ‘Does the legislative process involve a proper level of compromise?’ the House got a D-minus, while the Senate earned a C. And on ‘allowing multiple points of view on an issue to be heard,’ the House got a D-plus, the Senate a B-minus.”

There were a couple of bright spots for Congress as a whole. The experts gave members two solid B grades — for being accessible to their constituents, and for making their workings and activities open to the public.

As in the past, the 2013 survey included a set of questions asking the experts to assess the public’s knowledge of and interaction with Congress. In the eight-year history of the survey, the public has never received high marks, and the same was the case for 2013.

The public got across-the-board D grades for “following what is going on in Congress on a regular basis,” for “understanding the main features of Congress and how it works,” for “having a reasonable understanding of what Congress can and should do,” and for “being able to get to the core facts of issues before Congress.”

The experts gave citizens C grades for “contacting their members of Congress on issues that concern them” and for “working through groups that share their interests to influence Congress.”

The experts were no kinder to the media. On the survey question, “How well does the media coverage of Congress contribute to the public’s understanding of Congress?” the experts graded journalists a D-plus. “To the degree that Congress is covered by the media, it’s because of the ideological clashes that take place on the floor, and, increasingly, in committee hearings,” said Carmines. “Covering the actual substantive work of Congress is not easy; it’s very technical, it’s very detailed, it’s very nuanced. It doesn’t make for good television.”

To see the survey questions and results, go to http://www.centeroncongress.org/2013-political-scientists-survey.

About the Center

The Center on Congress is a non-partisan, educational institution established in 1999 to help improve the public’s knowledge of Congress and to encourage civic engagement. The Center developed out of Lee Hamilton’s recognition during his 34 years in the U.S. House that Americans should be more familiar with Congress’s strengths and weaknesses, its role in our system of government, and its impact on the lives of ordinary people every day.

An innovator in using technology to make civics instruction interesting and relevant to young people, the Center offers Web-based interactive modules, apps for the iPad, and other online learning tools in English and Spanish. Hamilton writes twice-monthly commentaries for newspapers, and the Center’s portfolio includes booklets and books on Congress and citizenship; video and television in the classroom resources; survey research; teacher awards; and seminars, conferences, and a lecture series.

The Center on Congress is supported in part by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at IU Bloomington. For more information, go to www.centeroncongress.org.