By Lee H. Hamilton
With the 114th Congress just underway, the political world is focused intently on the road ahead. Taxes, trade, immigration, climate change, job creation, the Affordable Care Act—there’s a long list of issues and one burning question: whether a Republican Congress and a Democratic President can find common ground.
Yet before we get worked up about what’s to come, we need to take a hard look at the Congress that just ended and ask a different question: Why was it such an abject failure?
Let’s start with a basic number. According to the Library of Congress, 296 bills were passed by the 113th Congress and signed by the President. Just for comparison’s sake, the “do-nothing Congress” of 1947-48 got 906 bills through. The Financial Times called this most recent version “the least productive Congress in modern U.S. history.”
Congress failed most spectacularly on the basics. Not one of the dozen annual appropriations bills passed, while the budget resolution, which is supposed to set overall fiscal policy, never even got to a vote.
When Congress did legislate, it did so in the worst possible way—by using an “omnibus” spending bill into which it crammed everything it could manage. Congress’s reliance on omnibus bills, which are written in secret, violates every rule of good legislative process and denies transparency and accountability. It allows Capitol Hill to curry favor with all sorts of special interests and forces—or allows—members to vote for provisions that would have had very little chance of surviving on their own.
The last Congress maintained one other lamentable trend: it took “oversight” to mean injecting its investigations with partisanship—Benghazi, the IRS’s examination of conservative groups, the VA’s mishandling of health care for veterans—while forgetting the crucial, ongoing oversight of government. It allowed itself to be co-opted by the intelligence community, which persuaded Congress to neglect a public debate on massive surveillance, hacked the Senate’s computers, and misled Congress about the nature and extent of torture.
The congressional leadership is now under pressure to show Americans that they can be successful. Let’s hope they consider “success” to include avoiding the bad habits of the past, by paying more attention to their constituents than to special interests; enforcing their own ethics rules more vigorously; and most of all, allowing the full debate and votes Congress needs to serve as a true coequal branch of government.
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.