What you need to know about Congress right now
By Lee H. Hamilton
Deeply unpopular and flagrantly unproductive, Congress is on its August recess right now. It won't return until Sept. 9, after a five-week recess, leaving itself just a few days to settle issues like raising the debt ceiling and passing a federal budget. Here are some things you should know about where it stands at this stage of the game:
-- Few, if any, Congresses can match this one for futility. It managed to help out some communities in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and to reach a deal on presidential nominations, but mostly it can't get things done, whatever your politics. The repeal of Obamacare, action on climate change, a "grand bargain" on our fiscal problems, education and tax reform, creating jobs, strengthening gun laws ... the list of dropped balls is long, although there is still hope for immigration reform, if just barely. A few weeks ago, Speaker John Boehner told Americans not to judge Congress by how many laws it passes, but by how many it repeals. It hasn't succeeded on either count.
-- The budget process is a mess. It's been years since Congress put together a budget according to its regular order, but even by its recent low standards this year has been chaotic. None of the appropriations bills needed for the government to continue running after Sept. 30 have been enacted. "It is common for Congress to leave big budget fights until the last minute," the Wall Street Journal's Janet Hook wrote as Congress left town, "but the budgeting process now seems so adrift that even congressional veterans find it hard to see a resolution." Passing a budget is the most basic function of government, and Congress can't manage it.
-- Members of Congress do not like to compromise. The parties are more divided ideologically than they've been for many decades, with one side fiercely hostile to government and the other convinced that government can accomplish good things. Neither side can get things done on its own. That's pretty much the definition of when responsible lawmakers step forward to build a consensus. Yet in this Congress, either they don't know how or they're not interested. A glimmer of hope does exist, as more members respond to polls showing Americans believe it's more important for the parties to compromise than to stick to their positions. They may not be able to come to agreement, but some of them are talking about how willing they are to reach across the aisle.
-- Even so, it's worth noticing that one of the congressional parties is extraordinarily difficult to lead at the moment. The Republicans are fractured and squabbling over their future direction. This makes me sympathize with the formidable task the Republican leadership confronts.
-- Hardly anyone out there thinks Congress is doing a good job -- it's consistently below 20 percent approval ratings -- and most people think it's too partisan. Yet members aren't very concerned. They've become quite skilled at running against Washington, even though they are Washington. And they count on the fact that few voters hold their own member of Congress responsible for its shortcomings, however unpopular Congress as a whole has become.
-- As lobbyists descend in swarms on Capitol Hill, they hold more power than ever. They rain cash, twist arms, and even draft bills -- all the things that powerful congressional leaders used to do. The NRA's defeat of legislation strengthening background checks for gun purchases, in the face of overwhelming public sentiment after Newtown, was nothing less than an impressive display of political clout and an example of how influential lobbyists and special interests have become. Perhaps this is why a good number of my former colleagues have made a tidy living for themselves by becoming lobbyists.
-- Finally, all of this contributes to the emerging themes for the 2014 congressional campaign. Candidates will clearly run against the mess in Washington, and a good number of them, though not all, will talk regularly about the need to be bipartisan. The big question for 2015 will be whether the successful ones can translate their talk into legislation to help move the country forward.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.