One of the more amazing spectacles in the days after the government shutdown ended was the obsession in Washington with who won and who lost in the showdown. Yes, the capital is focused on next year’s elections, but honestly! There was only one real loser, and that was the American people.
Why? Because nothing got resolved. The agreement leaves the government open only until mid-January, and gives the Treasury the ability to borrow through early February. This is the barest minimum that we needed. So the question is, can we avoid a similar crisis down the road? To do so, Congress must confront three enormous challenges. To begin with, great democracies do not lurch from doomsday moment to doomsday moment. They plan ahead, they resolve their challenges, they fulfill their responsibilities abroad and respond to their own people’s needs. Congress can do none of these things so long as its members respond only to brinksmanship, resolving one crisis by setting up another a few months down the road.
Second, I find myself thinking often these days of the skillful legislators I’ve known over the years. Where are their counterparts today? Congress only works well when politicians and staff understand that each party has to walk away with something; that it’s crucial to preserve flexibility and avoid scorched-earth rhetoric; and that it takes people with the fortitude not to walk away from talks when things are going poorly. Congress needs legislators who are willing to roll up their sleeves and commit fully to the process.
Finally, Congress is weak today. By its inaction, it 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. And it has allowed the Supreme Court to become the central policy-making 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. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.