Lee Hamilton: Congress content to let others do its work

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. In all, the House will be in session for less than one-third of the year, and the Senate only a bit longer.

This schedule reveals a 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.

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, especially on two fronts where Congress ought to be resolute.

One is the budget – the 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. Its deference to the president is even more striking when it comes to committing U.S. forces overseas.

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And because Congress has essentially given up on trying to shape fiscal policy, it has put the Federal Reserve in charge of keeping the economy growing. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become the principal way our country deals with tough issues ranging from abortion to affirmative action.

Congress these days is far from being the co-equal branch our founders envisioned. And many of its members agree that the institution they serve is not doing its job. Speaker Paul Ryan recently announced that Congress won’t even talk about immigration reform next year.

Which may be the most distressing part of all. Instead of being concerned enough about congressional weakness and inactivity to take action, its leaders appear to believe that many of the toughest issues on the national agenda are beyond their capability to resolve.

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.