By Lee H. Hamilton
After Congress came a hair’s breadth from shutting down the Department of Homeland Security a few weeks ago, members of the leadership tried to reassure the American people. “We’re certainly not going to shut down the government or default on the national debt,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Congress, he said, would not lurch from crisis to crisis.
I wish I could be so confident. Because if you look at the year ahead, the congressional calendar is littered with opportunities to do just that.
Next month, unless Congress acts, doctors will see a steep cut in Medicare reimbursements. In May, the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money, meaning that infrastructure projects all across the country could grind to a halt. The following month, the federal Export-Import Bank’s charter runs out. By the end of summer, Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling. Then it will have to find a way of funding the government for next year, deal with across-the-board spending cuts that are scheduled to take hold, and make it possible for the Treasury to continue to borrow money.
I don’t know about you, but my bet is not on smooth sailing.
This is a huge problem. Great democracies do not veer from one doomsday moment to the next, nor do they fund government on a week-to-week basis. World superpowers do not risk their creditworthiness or threaten to strangle their own agencies or force them to plan repeatedly for shutdowns. Yet that is precisely the habit Congress has developed. It’s embarrassing.
Why? Look at what happened with Homeland Security. The issue, essentially, was that members, unhappy with President Obama’s plan to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, tried to use the DHS funding measure to force him to back down. In other words, they tied two unrelated issues together. The solution ultimately lay in separating them, allowing a vote on each.
But during the weeks Congress spent arriving at this commonsense approach, DHS had to get ready for roughly 30,000 employees to be furloughed, arrange to wind down administrative support functions, prepare law enforcement across the country for the loss of training funds, and ask crucial employees to be willing to work without pay — we’re talking the border patrol, Coast Guard, screeners at airports, cargo inspectors…the people on the front lines.
The impasse threatened ongoing research and planning on making the country safer and grants to local communities to pay salaries for emergency personnel. At the very point when terrorism overseas was consuming the attention of our national security agencies, the department charged with protecting the nation at home had to be consumed with shuttering its operations.
Small wonder that much of the world thinks the United States is incapable of governing itself.
I know that the politics of Capitol Hill are difficult right now. But they’ve been troublesome for years, and legislating is about getting things done in a difficult environment. Congress is designed to be an institution where the dilemmas of the moment can be overcome by skillful legislators. We need a Congress that can address its problems before a crisis comes up.
What will it take to do so? Part of the answer lies in dedication to Congress’s job. Its members need to work at legislating every day — not just the three days in the middle of the week. Its leaders need to make clear their determination to move legislation through in an orderly fashion. The so-called “Hastert Rule” — that the Speaker of the House will not allow a vote on a bill unless he has a majority of his own party behind it — needs to be jettisoned for good, not just in extreme circumstances. Allowing a majority of the House and the Senate to work its will, whatever the partisan alignment, would do wonders.
And perhaps most important, the tactic of tying two unrelated issues together in order to force an opponent’s hand needs to be rejected. The parade of make-or-break issues that Congress faces this year presents myriad opportunities for legislative mischief. If all we see before us is one government-shutdown threat after another, the remaining faith Americans hold in our chief lawmaking body could disappear altogether. And deservedly so.
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.