Editorial March 7, 2014

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

“Perhaps, during the midterm elections, we might ask ourselves if our voting choices are capable of wisdom…”

With the introduction of President Obama’s new budget proposal we might conclude we have seen the last of the days of partisan wrangling over budget issues that delayed a legitimate and complete congressional budget for two years and even shut the government down for two weeks. But we would be wrong.

 What this budget and some of the other contentious issues of the past two years taxpayers have been introduced to behavior that has dominated discourse and may well be the reason for the continuous partisan wrangling; duplicity or, in the common language, two-facedness.

 Here are some examples:

 Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) was quoted by the Associated Press regarding the President’s FY 2015 budget that the President “…has once again opted for the political stunt – for a budget that’s more about firing up the president’s base in an election year than about solving the nation’s biggest and most persistent long-term challenges.”” This from the leader of a political party that has done little more in the House (with collusion of Senate Republicans) than prepare for the 2014 midterms through pointless legislation rarely intended to go anywhere other than send a message back home. The House has produced little else with the exception of those occasional breaths of fresh air when both parties finally came to an agreement such as the FY 2014 budget. The forty-some House bills aimed at repealing the Affordable Care Act or delaying its provisions also had real legislative initiatives included. Passage of those bills and Democrat votes against them are claimed back home as evidence that the Democrats don’t want to create jobs or do other things the bills aimed to do. But that process was significantly flawed even, possibly, to the point that the bills’ contents were devised to insure that Democrats would not vote for them. The situation is similar to this; you offer me a table for $500. I agree to buy the table but insist that before I buy it you must kill your wife. The table seller, who would never kill his wife, then gives up the sale. Such was the choice Democrats had when voting on those forty-some bills.

 While we are at it lets look at the recent move by Senate Democrats to reduce some presidential nominee’s approval to a simple majority vote of 51 rather than the 67-vote threshold. The Senate Republicans filibustered those nominations to the point that the tools (nominated personnel) the President needs to run the country were delayed. The same effort was considered in 2005 by Senate Republicans and when we try to contrast statements made by McConnell and Reid then we found there is no contrast.

Both insisted it was narrowly defined and both argued it was the end of the Senate as we know it. Both then threatened retaliation.

 The only recent quote that could equal these duplicitous statements is the one made by Secretary of State John Kerry who said recently about Russia’s occupation in Ukraine, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” Kerry said on CBS’ “Face The Nation.” Remember Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, its threat to US security and US interests in the region? This from a guy who voted to enter Iraq on a trumped up theory.

 So, what can we conclude from these contradictory statements? Regarding the nuclear option, well, maybe the Senate is an organic thing subject to change over the years, as Reid suggested or maybe the fear of losing power prompted the contradictions. An organic change should be recognized as the way it goes but, still, the opportunity to politicize even something necessary should be approached with wisdom, even humble wisdom. We did not get that and we can legitimately ask if this flipping and flopping back and forth on the same issue is doing us any good or just maintains the status quo which does not serve those who voted for a president who can’t get the nominations he thinks are necessary and so the country does not run fully staffed. There seems to be a lack of wisdom here.

 We live in a rather incredible country in some respects, not so in other respects, but we do have the option to send like-minded individuals to Washington to represent our interests and that brings to mind a line by actor Nick Cage in the movie, Raising Arizona; Cage, a goofball ex-con with a big heart and a local deputy as a wife who cannot have children kidnap a triplet recently born to a rich guy. Well, it didn’t work out but Cage said in the end that he hopes ‘for a time when all parents are wise and kind.’ Perhaps, during the midterm elections, we might ask ourselves if our voting choices are capable of wisdom and kindness. ##

Where Congress Falls Short…And Where It Doesn’t

By Lee H. Hamilton

 

“Process may not be everything, but good process enhances the chance of getting things right — and with each passing year, Congress forgets more and more about what good process looks like.”

Hamilton

Hamilton

At a public gathering the other day, someone asked me how I’d sum up my views on Congress. It was a good question, because it forced me to step back from worrying about the current politics of Capitol Hill and take a longer view.

Congress, I said, does some things fairly well. Its members for the most part want to serve their constituents and the country. They may be ambitious — it’s hard to be a successful politician if you’re not — but they’re not motivated primarily by personal interest. Most are people of integrity who have chosen to try to advance the national interest and are willing to work within our agitated political environment.

They also strive to reflect their constituents’ views. They’re not always successful at this — I think members of Congress tend to under-appreciate voters’ pragmatism and over-estimate their ideological purity. Still, they’re politicians: their success rests on being accessible to their constituents, understanding what they want, and aligning themselves with that interest.

For all the attractive individual qualities that members of Congress display, however, their institutional performance falls short. Talented though they are, the institution they serve does not work very well. They argue endlessly, pander to contributors and powerful interests, posture both in the media and in countless public meetings, and in the end produce very little. They discuss and debate a lot of problems, but don’t create effective results.

This may be because many members of our national legislature have a constricted view of what it means to be a legislator. They’re satisfied with making a political statement by giving a speech, casting a vote, or getting a bill through the chamber they serve in, rather than writing legislation that will make it through both houses of Congress, get signed by the President, and become a law. Their aim seems to be partisan and ideological, rather than a constructive effort to solve the nation’s problems.

Similarly, they undermine their ability to oversee the executive branch by conducting hearings for political gain rather than to scrutinize government activities or develop effective policy directives. Many of our representatives have become so reliant on their staff for knowledge about public policy and the details of federal agencies that in off-the-cuff debate they can be untethered and misinformed. Small wonder that Congress has had trouble being productive. The days appear to be over when members of Congress strove to be masters of their subject matter and legislators in fact as well as in name.

Forced to spend so much time raising money and listening to well-heeled people and groups, they also seem to have trouble seeing current affairs from the perspective of ordinary people. They fall captive to the politics of any given issue, rather than thinking about the much harder question of how you govern a country with all its residents in mind. They don’t see the necessity, in a divided Congress and a divided country, of negotiation and compromise.

Congressional tradition has created a legislative process that should encourage fact-finding, searching for remedies, and finding common ground. It should not work solely by majority rule; decisions spring from consultation with many voices, balancing minority and majority views, and fair-minded process. This is not what today’s members of Congress do, however. Instead, they short-circuit the committee process; fail to do their homework; dwell on talking points put together by staff and others; give too much power to their leaders; pay too little attention to deliberation; allow insufficient opportunity to debate and vote on major policy amendments; and in general make a mess of the budget — the basic operating instructions for the government.

Process may not be everything, but good process enhances the chance of getting things right — and with each passing year, Congress forgets more and more about what good process looks like.

Plenty of forces are responsible for this state of affairs, from the outsized role of money in the political process to today’s hyper-partisanship to TV-driven sound-bite debates. But in the end, it’s still a source of great frustration to the American people, me included, that well-meaning, talented individuals cannot make the institution work better.

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.