A headline in the Washington Post this week read: “Congress returns with one goal: No government shutdown.”
Nothing like setting a high bar for yourself after seven weeks of summer break!
Avoiding a shutdown is certainly a worthy objective. But it isn’t exactly the kind of lofty aspiration required for addressing America’s most pressing problems.
Congress hasn’t even been able to agree on funding to battle the Zika virus – something that presumably there should be a fair amount of agreement is a bad thing.
As a CNN Politics online article put it, “The top Republican and Democratic Senate leaders returned from their seven-week summer recess Tuesday and picked up where they left off in July – harshly blaming the other’s party for inaction on critical bills to battle Zika and fund the government.”
If that’s not enough, Carl Hulse of the New York Times wrote on September 6 that “Congress returns on Tuesday for a pre-election session that is likely to produce substantial political positioning without much substantive accomplishment.”
That, in a nutshell, has been the story of Congress writ large over recent years. And unfortunately, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s recently released Healthy Congress Index only underscores that the institution is stuck in neutral.
The Index provides metrics for evaluating the current Congress’s ability to effectively govern and compares the data against past congresses. The areas measured by the Index are based on key recommendations released in 2014 by the Commission on Political Reform, which I co-chair. The measures include: the number of days Congress spent on legislative business; how open the Senate was to debate and amendments; and how effectively Congress followed “regular order” by allowing a substantial committee process, robust floor debate, and resolving of House and Senate differences in conference committees.
To quote the BPC’s analysis of the second quarter results for 2016:
“The 114th Congress has not appreciably improved on recent predecessors with respect to the number of working days in Washington and the openness of the legislative process…Some early signs of progress toward more working days and a more open process seem to have dissipated. Only the committee process in both chambers and the number of amendments considered in the Senate continue to show signs of progress. And with only a few weeks of legislative business remaining on the schedule, BPC experts say that reality is unlikely to change.”
Against this backdrop, because Congress has failed yet again to enact any of the 12 spending bills they are required to pass, they are once again facing a scramble of their own making to pass legislation to continue to fund the government after September 30, which marks the end of this fiscal year.
As the Washington Post reported, “Lawmakers have four weeks to hammer out a spending deal…but some are already warning the task will not be easy…Both sides are digging in for a fight.”
This seemingly endless cycle of abdication of responsibility followed by self-generated crisis and 11th hour brinkmanship is in danger of being permanently imprinted on the DNA of Congress – if we, as voters, don’t act and elect candidates who embrace results over political rhetoric. But we need not wait for our turn at the ballot box to send a signal that cannot be ignored.
We must constantly and consistently barrage our elected officials with the message that their hyper-partisanship and intransigence will no longer be ignored, or tolerated. And we must begin now, before the current climate becomes the permanent culture.