A common joke remarks, “There’s a reason it’s called Congress not Progress.” Never has this joke been truer than for the current Congress.
A CNN/ORC poll found that Congress’ approval rating is 10 percent, less than BP’s approval rating during the 2010 oil spill (15 percent according to Gallup). Given Congress’ recent failure to avert a government shutdown, it’s not hard to see why.
The shutdown will have disastrous effects for the United States. Investor, consumer, and business confidence (all of which are key to the economic recovery) will take a hit. 800,000 government workers will be furloughed. While military servicemen and women will continue to go to work, they will be paid with IOUs. Programs that help small businesses, the housing markets, and women and children’s nutrition will halt. More importantly, the shutdown will send the message to the rest of the world that the United States is on the decline, like Rome and Britain before it. The fact that the richest, most powerful nation in the world cannot stop its government from shutting down is an embarrassment of the highest order.
The shutdown is not the only sign that this is the worst Congress ever. Congress has been acting like a bunch of immature, good-for-nothing children for years. Last winter, they could not reach a deal to stop the Sequester, resulting in across-the-board cuts that devastated many government agencies and American industries.
Moreover, Congress is terrible at passing laws. Even the 80th Congress, which Harry Truman referred to as the “do-nothing Congress,” passed far more legislation than the current Congress. Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, two highly respected scholars of congressional issues, have stated that they “have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional”.
Even when Congress does get things done, they do so at the last minute, putting even the laziest college students to shame. For example, a deal on the fiscal cliff was not reached until 2 a.m. the day it was supposed to go into effect. Even then, Congress simply delayed many of the budget battles regarding the fiscal cliff rather than resolving them.
The Republican Party is a large part of the problem, especially in the House. Under Speaker John Boehner’s leadership, the House Republicans have been incredibly rigid in their negotiating style. For one thing, they are more obsessed with repealing Obamacare than Breaking Bad fans were obsessed with the series finale (myself included). The Republicans have voted 41 times to repeal Obamacare. They’ve been successful zero times.
There is no way the Republicans can kill Obamacare, given that they could never get a bill repealing or defunding it through the Democratic-held Senate, and even if they did, Obama would veto it. The Republicans might as well focus their time and energy on more important problems and more realistic solutions.
Instead, the GOP has decided to treat the Obamacare debate as a zero sum game. Under the leadership of individuals like Ted Cruz, Congressional Republicans decided to engage the Democrats with an act of political extortion: defund Obamacare or the government shuts down. This strategy of “do what we want or we’ll screw up everything” directly lead to the government shutdown.
Some may argue that the consequences of this shutdown may not be as dire as projected, pointing to the relatively harmless government shutdown of 1995-1996. Indeed, if this were the 1990s—when the economy was strong and America’s biggest gripe was the President receiving oral sex—then Congress’ ludicrous behavior would actually be amusing. However, this isn’t the ‘90s, and there are unprecedented problems facing our country. America’s economy is sluggish, the War in Afghanistan remains ongoing, and nations like China are rising to challenge America’s status as the world’s sole superpower.
An effective legislative branch is key to ensuring that the United States does not go through a “lost decade” like Japan did. We need Congress to do its job now more than ever, and frankly, that’s not what they’ve been doing.
Fortunately, there are things that can be done to put Congress back on track. First, Congress should no longer be paid when they fail to pass a budget. Currently, the paychecks of senators and representatives are considered mandatory spending, meaning that members of Congress get paid even in the event of a shutdown. Making Congressional pay discretionary spending would mean that Congress would no longer get paid when they fail to pass a budget, giving them an extra incentive to complete one of their most basic jobs on time. Furthermore, the thought of Congress not getting paid because of their gridlock would probably give many Americans (myself included) a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
A major problem with Congress recently is their tendency to block important nominations. In 2011, more than 200 presidential nominations were left uncompleted, including key positions at the Fed. and Treasury. Senator Richard Shelby alone was able to block 70 nominations. A quick fix would be to rule that Congress has 90 days to vote yes or no on a nomination, and if they can’t get their act together by then, the nominee is automatically approved. Such an “up-or-down vote in 90 days” rule would be an effective way to ensure the nomination process is able to fulfill important posts in our nation’s government
Finally, Congress should be term-limited. The incumbency effect ensures that many congressmen are reelected over and over again. Since 1976, it has not been uncommon for 90 percent of congressmen to win re-election, with 2010 being a rare exception to this rule. The benefits of incumbency ensure that many senators and representatives who hold outdated views (or are just plain bad) cannot serve indefinitely. After serving many terms, Congressmen can become out of touch with what’s going on outside the beltway. Furthermore, new candidates are more up-to-date with the times and often have better ideas that never get off the ground. Term limits would end these problems.
Some would argue that term limits would make politicians less responsive to their constituents since they will not need votes to achieve their last term; this is a good thing. A large part of why Congress can’t reach a compromise is that their constituents don’t want compromise. For example, in 2010, many moderate Republicans who were willing to work with Democrats were defeated in the primaries by more rabid candidates due to the Tea Party movement.
Currently, many congressmen are career politicians that simply want to be reelected more than they want to help their country. Thus, they often do things that are politically popular but bad for America, and refrain from things that are good for America but politically unpopular. Term limits would end this practice, making politics a public service rather than a self-aggrandizing career. Congress could make the right decision, even when the right decision is unpopular.
In turn, terms should be extended in the House of Representatives. Currently, representatives must run for reelection every two years, putting more pressure on them to consider policies based on their political popularity rather than their actual effects. Longer terms—say four years—would give representatives more breathing room and allow them to focus on the important issues without constantly thinking about getting votes.
None of these reforms will come easily, but they must be done. We cannot continue to coast on with a Congress as defective as this one. There are too many problems facing the United States today for inaction to be a sustainable model. Congress is certainly broken, but we can fix it. The question is, will we?