Here we are at the end of the first session of the 114th Congress when everyone is waxing on the year behind, or the year ahead, or the year ahead because of the year behind, and even the year behind because of the year ahead.
Let’s just take a look at some things Congress should avoid in 2016 and beyond;
Over the past two years there has been no shortage of political messaging bills which may be okay if they are debated and voted on…once.
It is important for politicians to show their electors they are trying to carry out their wishes. But, you know, over fifty votes to repeal or cripple the Affordable Care Act (ACA), each was agreed to in the House and then ended up languishing in the political limbo where supporters knew they would. The efforts looked less driven by urgency of the matter and more like an obsessed person continually repeating to himself some perceived wrong. More than just annoying redundancy, that obsession with political messaging did close the government down for a couple of weeks and threatened the country’s credit rating. Don’t do that again, please.
The Budget Process.
The premier spending to safeguard Americans from foreign aggression is the Department of Defense appropriations. Over the past few years the struggle to produce the usually bipartisan Defense spending bill stumbled into political territory between the white House and Congress because of the Sequester which should never have happened.
Congress is no stranger to Sequester; the idea got attention during Gramm, Rudman, Hollings I and II (GRH) in the 1980s trying to resolve spending behavior resulting in a deficit of about $300 billion under Reagan. An unheard of amount in those days. But the Sequester was avoided back then for reasons we now see were wise. The strategy behind the GRH threat of a Sequester was pretty straight forward; ‘such cuts were so threatening Congress would make the necessary budget decisions to avoid them.’
That was the strategy in 2012 when the White House and Democrats couldn’t agree to budget caps. A special committee was convened to find a trillion in cuts to avoid Sequester, they met intermittently, found no cutting common ground, and the Sequester became a reality. Seeing how that wasn’t going to work, Congress made some modifications to what would be subject to Sequester spending limits but has mostly continued trying to budget while dragging along the Sequester ball and chain.
Despite all the concern that the economy was heading for hell in a handcart, the way forward to avoid default had to be the Ryan / Murray budget compromise that found acceptable caps between the Republican Sequester limits and Democrat ideals. This year, in order to get a budget with an extra $50 billion of seriously needed funds and a debt limit increase, we got the recent reconciliation. Compromise in the budget is paramount to keeping the doors open. Since we seem to get to a spending number in the middle anyway, let’s avoid the time-consuming maneuvering of the past two years and get the budget done on time.
The Regular Order.
It’s simple; the bill is introduced and given committee attention, maybe amended; the bill comes to the floor allowing germane amendments which are debated and voted on, a final motion to recommit the bill to committee for changes is debated and voted on then a vote on passage. The bill fails or is passed and sent on to the other body. Following the regular order gives taxpayers the opportunity to see the details of a bill and the process through which it proceeds with clarity (transparency), and who voted how and maybe why. Closed rules obscures a lot of that.
Legislate. Forget the attacks and the addition of political comments about the President or the other Party when discussing a bill. Leave those to the Presidential candidates since they tend to have little substantive ideas on substantive issues and,we have seen it is what they do best. Your title comes with the word ‘Honorable’. Rise to that standard. #
Hamilton on Congress
Sadly, Congress Seems Okay With Being Weak
Not many people outside of Capitol Hill paid attention last month when the congressional leadership released next year’s legislative schedule. Its headline feature is a strikingly long summer recess: half of July and all of August, along with a few spotty weeks of work before the November election. There are plenty of other breaks as well; in all, the House will be in session for less than one-third of the year, and the Senate only a bit longer.
I suppose we could take Congress to task for not working hard enough, and I’m sure plenty of people will do so. But the schedule reveals an even more serious issue: it suggests that Congress, or at least its leadership, is unconcerned about how ineffective and even irrelevant the institution has become when it comes to policy making.
This has been a long-term trend, with plenty of responsibility to be laid at the feet of political leaders in both parties. Even some recent signs of progress, like the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aren’t enough. Many people, within Washington and beyond, now take Congress’s weakened state for granted, almost as if it’s the natural order of things.
That is because wherever you turn, Congress has lost ground as an institution. The contrast with the presidency is especially stark. Every President in recent memory has expanded the power of his office, and for good reason. The modern world demands quick, decisive action, and Americans like presidents who act forcefully. Yet the result is that the balance of power has shifted dangerously toward the President.
This is especially apparent on two fronts where Congress ought to be resolute. One is the budget — the basic blueprint for the government — which is now largely the President’s responsibility. Congress cannot even produce a real budget any more; every year, it kicks the serious fiscal questions down the road — from hard decisions on tax reform to even harder decisions on spending. Its deference to the President is even more striking when it comes to committing U.S. forces overseas. Members of Congress happily criticize the President on issue after issue, lamenting that they cannot trust him and cannot work with him. Yet on some of the most important questions the government faces — whether, how, where, and when to intervene using military force — they defer utterly to the White House.
They do the same with the regulatory agencies. Members love to criticize the EPA, for instance, but rarely put their words into legislative action, and they fail repeatedly to do the kind of routine, painstaking oversight of federal agencies that would help eliminate wasted resources and bureaucratic overreach.
At the same time, they’ve handed economic power to the Federal Reserve. Fifty years ago, the ordinary American who could name the chair of the Fed was rare. Today, it’s hard to pick up a newspaper without reading about Janet Yellen and the Fed’s board of governors. Because Congress has essentially given up on trying to shape fiscal policy, it has put the Fed in charge of keeping the economy growing.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become the principal way our country deals with a host of tough issues like abortion and affirmative action. These are matters that, ideally, would be wrestled through the legislative process. Instead, they’re up to the Court.
Congress these days is failing to assert its responsibilities under the Constitution — it is far from being the co-equal branch our Founders envisioned. And many of its members agree. They don’t believe the institution they serve is doing its job — they’d point, for instance, to immigration reform, which Speaker Paul Ryan recently announced the House would not even touch next year, despite the pressing need. Here is an issue practically begging for rolled-up sleeves on Capitol Hill. Yet instead of action, they get a congressional schedule that sends members back to their districts for most of the year.
Which may be the most distressing part of it all. Instead of being concerned enough about Congress’s weakness and inactivity to take action, its leaders, at least, appear to believe that many of the toughest issues on the national agenda are beyond their capability to resolve.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.