Unlike many members of Congress, Americans seem to understand things that ought to be done are not getting done, and 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. The attractiveness of the American model is under challenge, and our political dysfunction is a serious handicap. As the Wall Street Journal put it recently, a superpower that isn’t sure it can fund its government or pay its bills is not in a position to lead.
And because problems aren’t getting addressed, others are stepping into the breach at home, too — but with less transparency, less accountability and less flexibility. The Fed is doing the heavy lifting on the economy. The Supreme Court is essentially legislating. Executive branch agencies are trying to handle massively difficult challenges through executive orders. State and local governments have decided even on issues they can’t truly address effectively, like immigration, they’re on their own.
When asked about all this, congressional leaders tend to blame the other house, arguing 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. A leader’s responsibility is to enact legislation, not just get a bill through the house of Congress he or she controls.
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. Especially when Congress is so divided.
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, when the House and Senate give themselves just one overlapping week this month to resolve huge questions of public policy, 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 Congress knows how to live up to its responsibilities.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University Bloomington. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.