By Lee H. Hamilton
I felt a brief surge of hope a few weeks ago about Congress. It was returning from Easter recess, and Capitol Hill was filled with talk about immigration reform, a minimum-wage bill, a spending bill to keep the government operating, and maybe even funding for transportation infrastructure. But, as I said, it was brief.
That’s because the talk turned out to be just that. Immigration reform appears headed nowhere. Likewise, tax reform and budgetary discipline. The minimum-wage increase died in the Senate. Shoring up the Highway Trust Fund, which could go bankrupt at the end of summer, requires either massive new spending or a hefty rise in the gasoline tax — and Congress, of course, is inclined to do neither. The one step it appears ready to take is to approve a short-term spending bill, and that’s only because no one in either party wants to risk the public outrage that would attend a government shutdown right before an election.
Sure, with this year’s congressional elections fast approaching, neither party wants to force its members into tough votes. Yet listening to each party in Congress, it’s hard to imagine that they inhabit the same country. And that doesn’t seem likely to change as a result of the mid-term elections.
As a nation, we face a lot of challenges we’re not addressing. Immigration reform, tax reform, trade liberalization, reforming the International Monetary Fund — all need congressional action. So do the nation’s armed services and the Defense Department, which face serious cuts because of sequestration. Climate change isn’t even on the congressional agenda.
Which is why local governments are trying to deal with a global issue by passing zoning laws and ordinances. Indeed, congressional inaction is spurring states to cancel planned summer bridge- and road-repair projects, and big-city mayors to fill the national power vacuum by going ahead with their own minimum-wage measures, tax increases, and other initiatives designed to legislate where Congress won’t.
Here’s my fear. Congress is already derided at home as bumbling and ineffective. The perception abroad is even more worrisome: Capitol Hill’s inability to act is seen as a key piece of America’s decline as a superpower. If we’ve got several more years of drift and dysfunction ahead of us, then the institution that our founders considered to be the keystone of American democracy risks becoming not part of the solution, but the core of the problem.
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.