Congress is winding down its historically unproductive session with a small flurry of activity. It’s a welcome change, but it can’t possibly make up for what should have been accomplished on Capitol Hill this year.
The problem is that for too long, members of Congress have been working hard at everything except the one thing they should have been working hard at: legislating. They’ve done fundraisers and town hall meetings, and helped constituents track down Social Security checks. But they’ve been so unproductive that they’ve actually threatened our world standing and our domestic well-being.
Congress finally is moving forward incrementally. Gridlock is breached, but it’s not broken.
The likelihood is that Congress will pass a defense bill. It reached a small-scale budget agreement that undoes a bit of the damage caused by the sequester. It is finally starting to work through a list as long as your arm of judicial and executive-branch confirmations, but only because Senate Democrats decided they had to change the rules if they wanted to fill long-unfilled government appointments.
And the list of what Congress hasn’t done is far too long. There’s no food-stamp reauthorization or waterways construction bill. It passed a one-month extension to the farm bill, but that falls far short of the certainty this crucial economic sector needs. There’s no lasting solution to the debt ceiling problem. It has left unemployment benefits unresolved, immigration reform unresolved, tax reform unresolved, and action on climate change unresolved.
Unlike many members of Congress, Americans seem to understand that there are real costs to inaction. We’re in a competitive race with China for world leadership, and whether we like it or not, others around the globe are comparing our two governments. Our political dysfunction is a serious handicap.
When asked about all this, congressional leaders tend to blame the other house, arguing that they’ve done their best but the other side has bottled up their efforts. All I can say is, finger-pointing is not an excuse, it’s an admission of failure.
Legislating is tough, demanding work. It requires many hours of conversation about differences, commonalities, and possible solutions. It demands patience, mutual respect, persistence, collegiality, compromise, artful negotiation, and creative leadership.
Yet when Congress meets only episodically throughout the year, when it often works just three days a week and plans an even more relaxed schedule in 2014, you can only come to one conclusion: They’re not really willing to work hard at legislating. A last-minute flurry of bills offers hope, but it’s going to take a lot more work to convince the country that Congress knows how to live up to its responsibilities.
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.