Many years ago, I went to Washington, D.C., as a junior legislative director for a U.S. Congressman.  At that time, all or at least the vast majority of budget authorizations and appropriations bills were being passed by both House and Senate before the end of the fiscal year.  Several terms passed, and I became the staff director for another congressman, and the fiscal year was shifted several months to the present system because Congress was having trouble passing appropriations on time.  More years passed, and, after more time as a Congressional staff director, and then as a Director of Legislation at EPA, and a stint with a D.C. consulting firm,  I left Washington.  By then Congress was failing to pass quite a number of appropriations bills and relying more and more on stop-gap continuing resolutions.

We’re now to the point where, for the past three years, Congress has been unable to pass any individual appropriations bills and has lumped everything into a continuing resolution, or several sequential resolutions. And this year, Congress couldn’t even pass something like that on time and shut down a good-sized chunk of the government for half a month.  At the same time, the annual federal budget deficit has ballooned, although, as a result of a slightly improved economy and the cuts forced by the meat-ax of the “sequester,” the deficit has dropped considerably this past year.

And in another three months or so, we’ll likely go through another version of the same manufactured crisis.

Still… I have to ask, what gives?  When I left working for Congress more than thirty years ago, computers were in their infancy and most Congressional offices relied on electric typewriters and hand calculators.  So did most government agencies.  But everything got done, generally on time, if sometimes at the last moment.  Congress currently passes more legislation than it did thirty years ago, but accomplishes less of substance, and it argues over absolutely everything, or so it seems.

The Congress can’t seem to agree on much of anything, but then, from all the polls I’ve seen, and from talking to people everywhere, this lack of agreement in Congress seems to reflect a lack of agreement among those who elect members of Congress.

So is it really the fault of Congress?  Or is it ours… and it’s just much easier to blame the people we’ve elected when we insist that they follow the majority in their state or district, or we’ll remove them from office?  

8 thoughts on “Congress”

  1. Steve Newton says:

    Ronald Brownstein wrote a book about ten years back called “the second American Civil War” in which he argued that what worked as late as the 1960s, but which has ceased working since, was the fact that there was both a liberal and a conservative wing in both parties. Liberal Republicans and Democrats often joined hands and crossed party lines against their conservative brethren, and vice versa. This led to a four-cornered system rather than the current system that increasingly seems to two ends and no middle.

    Maybe that’s not right, either. “Two ends” implies some equivalency between super conservative tea partiers and super liberals on the other end, and I don’t think there is, at least in a processual sense. The liberal have moved closer toward the center over the past twenty years, which seems to be why there is no credible anti-war movement any more.

    But there is also no “burn the house down” segment of the liberals.

    And … unfortunately … the tea partiers are doing pretty much what their constituents elected them to do.

  2. Frank says:

    I’m glad to see the discussion come back around to the personal responsibility of “us,” the complainers, the audience, the viewers of this show. And a show it seems to be. I’m not sure if it is life imitating art, or art imitating life, anymore…but it seems to be a show.

    I would like to ask this forum a question: since it is apparent that almost everyone agrees that (at least) part of the “answer” is term limits, what can WE do to make this happen? I personally think we need to go back to citizen legislators vs. our current professional legislators who seem to evolve (?) into lobbyists on a regular basis. Others, I’m sure will have a different view, but, whatever the logic used, term limits that will “wash out” the system on a regular basis seems to be a good place to start…but, how? I don’t see getting our professional politicians to help vote themselves out of their cycle of abuse for profit. Any practical suggestions?

  3. The only certain way is a Constitutional amendment. How to get it enacted and ratified is another question.

  4. Mark says:

    If you live in a state with open primary laws and you live in a “safe” district for a political party you could cross party lines and vote for the more moderate candidate running in the “safe” party. If enough people do that maybe that will counterbalance the extremists?

  5. Christopher says:

    I’m a huge fan. You have an excellently creative way of writing that also satisfies the wanna-be scientist in me. Anywho..

    Firstly, we need to get the money out of politics and replace it with brains. Now, I don’t mean we need to pay our politicians less. On the contrary, we need to pay them more. They should not, however, be able to receive donations and perks. This leads to voting the way the money goes. They should not be allowed to vote on issues that they have an interest in, such as voting for an oil pipeline that would benefit an oil company that a friend or relative owns. Heck, I even believe that there should be a qualification and/or interview process just to run for office to make sure we aren’t letting the peanut gallery run the entire country. Our best and brightest should be running the show, not some dimwit that just had a bigger wad of cash.

    Secondly, we need to pump vast amounts of money into our education system. Having gone through public school post 2000, I can tell you that they are letting the new generations rot. If you don’t have clear goals from a young age, you are likely to slip right through the system. And I had it pretty good compared to some people I know who were educated in even worse school systems(such as Michigan small towns) that now have a hard time even with basic math. I am lucky that I read a book a week, and sometimes more. That certainly helped me. There are many people that exit these schools that are successful and well-educated, but there are just as many or more who are neither. These people will grow up to be less productive, less intelligent, etc. But, they can still vote.

    Look at the amount of money we have spent on different “wars” since 2000. Whether you agree with those actions or not, would you not agree that we should possibly have a “war” against a lack of education, and that we should be willing to foot a bill just as costly? I personally believe that our future would be more secure by growing scientists, engineers, doctors, and all manner of educated people, than by sending all that money overseas in the form of troops, ships, jets, and bombs.

    The main reason for my argument towards education is that these people will one day vote. The majority can be either logical or the opposite, depending on the type of education they receive. I would imagine that we want more people who are likely to do their own research, their own thinking, and finally their own voting, rather than someone who simply decides to vote a certain way because the commercial they saw told them to.

    PS. Politicians should not be allowed to blatantly lie to us, or evade our answers. It has gotten to the point where they don’t even care that we know they are lying. As long as everyone hits their talking points, they are going home happy. Sigh..

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      There may be districts where lack of money is the problem with education, but there are plenty where it isn’t. DC public schools are a disaster, yet they cost far more per student than many successful private schools in the area.

      Why? Unprepared and unwilling kids, and unsupportive parents that were just looking for a boost in their welfare, or were careless, but in neither case actually wanted to raise kids, let alone kids more successful then they were. So they dump the whole job on the schools.

      I’m sure few of the best teachers choose a system like that. But as much as the teachers need to prove they can meet standards, the parents need it even more. Cut their welfare benefits if they don’t require their children to perform to the best of their ability in school.

      Better yet, over a very well-announced year cut all welfare benefits to the bone, and make it clear that the only way to survive will be to work, even if at a distasteful job. This will also discourage illegal immigration by reducing the number of jobs that Americans aren’t doing.

      The problem with too much government isn’t just how much it costs, it’s how much it meddles, how much freedom it takes away, how much it allows people to avoid or defer the consequences of their own choices.

  6. AndrewV says:

    I’ve always operated on the premise that the person reflected in the mirror is primarily responsible for the life one is currently leading. Sometimes that’s not the case, but the choices we make as individuals direct our daily lives.

    Congress is, in essence, the reflection in the mirror of the electorate. Do John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi reflect my personal values? No, but they do closely reflect the people of their districts. They wouldn’t get elected so many terms without that resonance.

    At this point I think it’s obvious: The trouble is less idiots in Congress and more irreconcilable differences in ideology.

  7. Wine Guy says:

    I used to think term limits were a problem. Now I’m starting to think of them as a necessity. If the members of Congress were to concentrate on getting the job done when they know they only have 2 terms in the Senate or 5 terms in the House…. I’m not sure that there’d be the wrangling there is now since it wouldn’t be all about elections.

    Unfortunately, the world is now busy enough that I do not think there can be part-time politicians at the national level and still have them perform due diligence for their constituents on issues and votes… that being said, I believe much of the problem is that they do NOT do their own due diligence and leave it either to their staff or the special interest group personnel.

    Three things I would like to see with Congress and Federal Government :

    1. Term Limits: see above.

    2. Bring back a true Reading of the Bill: if Congress actually had to sit and listen to the reading of the bill, they’d be pithy and concise. Spending bills run to 1000+ pages. The average bill is 1018, though most are much shorter (and ACA, notably, more than 2000). This way, there’s no ‘We have to pass it to see what’s in it’ attitudes (thank you, Congresswoman Pelosi).

    3. Members of Congress shall spend at least 3 months in their own districts AND shall have an open door policy for 2 of those months. I’m an independent: I’ve never been able to substantially contact either my Representative or my Senators and engage in a meaningful dialogue. Guess I don’t donate enough to the cause.

    In addition to everything else it would do… only those who REALLY want to be in national politics would put up with #3. (yes, I’m smirking when I typed this)

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