Congress was designed to be the institution where the difficulties of the moment could be overcome by legislators with the skill and temperament to work together to overcome them. Instead, we face a host of challenges with a Congress unable to address them because it can only postpone a crisis from one date to another.
I find myself thinking often these days of the skillful legislators I’ve known over the years. Where are their counterparts today? The negotiations that produced the last-minute settlement may have taken a lot of effort, but they do not measure up to what’s required.
Congress only works well when its members understand some key things: that each party has to walk away with something; that it’s crucial to preserve flexibility and avoid pandering and scorched-earth rhetoric; that it needs to address the issues Americans care about most; that to avoid failure all the key players need to be at the table; and that they need the fortitude not to walk away from talks when things are going poorly.
Years ago, key players in serious negotiations went out to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington and were confined to the compound until they came to a resolution. We need legislators who are willing to roll up their sleeves and commit that fully to the process.
Because in our system, power never evaporates, it just flows elsewhere. So when Congress doesn’t perform, it cedes power to others.
By its inaction, Congress has given power to the president, who can use executive actions to enact policy. It has strengthened the federal bureaucracy by leaving regulatory decisions to federal agencies with very little direction or oversight. It has given massive economic power to the Federal Reserve, since someone has to promote economic growth in the face of congressional failure to deal with our fiscal issues. And it has allowed the Supreme Court to become the central policymaking body on controversial issues from campaign finance to affirmative action to environmental regulation.
“Any society that relies on nine unelected judges to resolve the most serious issues of the day is not a functioning democracy,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said in a recent speech. I’m sorry to say that he’s talking about us.
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.