Hamilton: Is Congress the solution or the core of the problem?

Lee Hamilton

I felt a brief surge of hope about Congress a few weeks ago. Lawmakers had returned from Easter recess, and Capitol Hill was filled with talk about immigration reform, a minimum-wage bill, and maybe even extensive funding for transportation infrastructure. But, as I said, the surge was brief.

That was because the talk turned out to be just that – talk. Immigration reform appears headed nowhere. Likewise tax reform and budgetary discipline. The minimum-wage increase died in the Senate. Shoring up the Highway Trust Fund requires either massive new spending or a hefty increase in the gasoline tax. Congress, of course, is inclined to do neither.

Which is part of the problem. With this year’s congressional elections fast approaching, neither party wants to force its members into tough votes. In fact, neither party even wants to appear to be working with the other.

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Republicans in the House talk about Benghazi, boosting charter schools, and Obamacare, and pass bills that have no chance of becoming law. In the Senate, Democrats push an extension of jobless benefits, try to make political hay out of the Republicans’ rejection of the minimum wage, and show little interest in moving bills through to enactment.

Listening to them separately, it’s hard to imagine that they inhabit the same country.

This doesn’t seem likely to change after the mid-term elections. Congress will remain evenly divided. Which means that for the next two years, at least, the stalemate between Capitol Hill and the White House will almost certainly continue.

As a nation, we face many challenges, yet we’re not addressing them. Comprehensive immigration reform may be “very difficult to achieve,” in the words of one leading Republican senator, but it’s still vitally important. Housing reform, tax reform, trade liberalization, reforming the International Monetary Fund – all these crucial concerns need congressional action. The nation’s armed services and the Defense Department, which face serious cuts because of sequestration, cry out for legislative relief. And climate change? It’s not even on the congressional radar screen.

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Which is why we have the curious sight of local governments trying to deal with a global issue by passing zoning laws and ordinances, in the belief that at least they can do a little bit to address climate change’s impact. Indeed, congressional inaction is spurring states to cancel planned summer bridge- and road-repair projects, and big-city mayors to fill the national power vacuum by going ahead with their own minimum-wage measures, tax increases, and other initiatives designed to legislate where Congress won’t.

I’ve been listening to what non-incumbent candidates for Congress are saying. Their partisan labels and policy specifics might differ, but not their basic message: They are the ones who can fix congressional dysfunction, partisanship and polarization. They are the ones who can get Capitol Hill moving again.

But few of those candidates will get the chance to put their ideas into action, since incumbents enjoy overwhelming advantages at election time. Even those who do get elected will find, as they always do, that there is a yawning gap between what seems possible when you’re campaigning and what’s actually possible once you’re elected.

The good news: If candidates are talking about fixing Congress, it means they believe that’s what Americans want. If non-incumbents do well enough in the elections, perhaps incumbent members will notice that the people want Congress to get its act together; perhaps they will finally begin to address our long list of problems.

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Let’s hope so, because Congress is already derided at home as bumbling and ineffective. Even more worrisome is the perception abroad, where Capitol Hill’s inability to act is seen as a key piece of America’s decline as a superpower.

If it turns out we’ve got several more years of drift and dysfunction ahead of us, then the institution that our founders considered to be the keystone of American democracy risks becoming not part of the solution but the core of the problem.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.