When Paul Ryan became House Speaker a few weeks ago, he made it clear that he has no intention of spending too much time in Washington. His wife and children are in Wisconsin, he pointed out, and he plans to commute, as he’s done since he got elected to Congress. “I just work here,” he told CNN, “I don’t live here.”
You can understand why President Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle sought to cast their end-of-October budget deal in the best possible light. They avoided a potentially catastrophic national default. They reduced the possibility of a government shutdown. And they raised the debt ceiling until March, 2017, taking that bargaining chip off the table until the next president is in the White House.
With a presidential election year fast approaching, we’re in for a lot of public talk about the state of American democracy. Much of that discussion will be insightful and thought-provoking, but there’s a good chance you’ll also find a lot of it vague and hard to pin down.
A couple of months ago, the Congressional Budget Office issued a sobering report on the U.S. economy’s long-term prospects. Not to put too fine a point on it, we’re headed for the fiscal rocks.
The campaigning for next year’s elections is starting to draw more attention, and with it comes a focus on voters and their mood. Which is all well and good, but it leaves out of the equation one large bloc of citizens: people who are eligible to vote, but don’t.
The most important function Congress serves is to debate and pass the federal budget. I know— it also levies taxes, imposes or relaxes regulations, and once in a while nudges our social, economic or political order in a meaningful way. But the budget tells the government what to do and makes it possible to do it. Everything else follows from that.
Before the ins and outs of the 2016 presidential contest become a preoccupation for many of us, it seems a good time to step back and look at the office of the presidency for which so many candidates are vying. The presidency inherited by whoever wins next November will be substantially changed from the position his or her predecessors occupied a few decades ago.
The presidential election is 16 months away, but already we’re smack in the middle of the usual media scrum of campaign coverage, prognostication, and strategizing by many of us who have nothing much to do with the real campaigns. I’ve been following the rhetoric of both parties, and there are a few points that stand out enough to tell us something about what we have to look forward to.
Members of Congress get categorized in all sorts of ways. They’re liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat; interested in domestic affairs or specialists in foreign policy.
I spend a fair amount of time talking to students and other young people about Congress and politics in general, and I’ve noticed something. It used to be that I’d regularly get asked how one runs for office. Nowadays, I rarely do.
A few weeks ago, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia made a small splash in the press when he took Congress to task for failing to authorize our nation’s ongoing war against Islamic militants. “The silence of Congress in the midst of this war is cowardly and shameful,” he said. “[T]his Congress, the very body that is so quick to argue against President Obama’s use of executive power... allows an executive war to go on undeclared, unapproved, undefined and unchecked.”
There have been encouraging signs on Capitol Hill of late that Congress’s long slide into irrelevance may be slowing.
I’ve seen a lot over my decades in politics, and not much alarms me. But I have to be blunt: Money is poisoning our political system.
I have been involved in politics and policy-making for over 50 years, and as you can imagine I hold strong feelings about reporters and the media. They’re not what you might think, however.
Congress has developed a fondness for open letters when it comes to Iran. First came the warning shot signed by 47 Republican senators that touched off a storm of criticism. Not to be outdone, the House checked in with its own bipartisan and more diplomatically stated letter to the President, warning that its members must be satisfied with any agreement before they’ll vote to reduce sanctions.
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.
The question usually comes toward the end of a public meeting. Some knotty problem is being discussed, and someone in the audience will raise his or her hand and ask, “Okay, so what can I do about it?”
It may not be obvious from the news coverage, but a good bit of Congress’s 2015 agenda just landed on Capitol Hill with a thud. I mean this literally. The federal budget that President Obama recently submitted runs to 2,000 pages.
You probably didn’t notice, but the Senate passed a milestone a couple of weeks back. Before 2015 was a month old, senators had already had a chance to vote up-or-down on more amendments than they did in all of 2014.
It didn’t get much attention at the time, but the elections last November did more than give Republicans a majority in the U.S. Senate. Voters also added to the ranks of people on both sides of Capitol Hill who believe members of Congress should serve a limited number of terms.
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.
Recent economic news has been broadly reassuring. Retail sales are strong, November saw the best job gains in three years, the federal deficit is shrinking, the stock market is robust, and the Fed is expressing enough faith in the economy that an interest rate bump next year is considered a certainty.
We are one glum country.
Given all the words and images devoted to the midterm elections over the past few weeks, you’d think the results had told us something vital about the future of the country. In reality, they were just a curtain-raiser. It’s the next few weeks and months that really matter.
Because of its power to influence public affairs, the press has long been known as “the Fourth Estate.” But I think the media may have been displaced. These days, it’s lobbyists who seem to carry the most clout in Washington.
I have been working in or around government for over 50 years, and if you asked me to boil down what I’ve learned to one sentence, it is this: Governing is much harder work than most people imagine. This doesn’t excuse its lapses or sluggish rate of progress, but it does help explain them.
Earlier this year, veteran political writer Thomas Edsall reported an eyebrow-raising fact about Americans’ views toward government. Polling by Gallup, he noted, found that the proportion of Americans who believed that corruption is “widespread” in government had risen from 59 percent in 2006 to 79 percent in 2013. “In other words,” Edsall wrote, “we were cynical already, but now we’re in overdrive.”
Members of Congress are home now, campaigning for the upcoming elections. Their messages are all over the map, and for a good reason: they have very little to brag about.
In his speech last week outlining his plans to use military force against the jihadists of the Islamic State, President Obama gave Congress only passing mention. “I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL,” he said. “But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together.”
Despite these last few months of hot and lazy days, it’s been hard not to notice a cold political wind blowing through the country. The magazine Foreign Affairs captured it with its latest cover, a mockup of a travel poster featuring a crumbling U.S. Capitol with the tagline, “See America: Land of Decay and Dysfunction.”
One of the fundamental lessons of 9/11 was that our government carried a share of blame for the failure to stop the attacks. Not because it was asleep at the switch or ignorant of the dangers that Al Qaeda posed, but because the agencies charged with our safety did not share what they knew, either up and down the chain of command or with each other. The attacks were preventable with shared information.
As election season approaches, I’ve been pondering a crucial issue about the role of government in our society. It’s that our government often fails — and that we need to address this. What’s odd is that while the frequent failures in government’s performance are very much on ordinary people’s minds, politicians don’t talk much about fixing them.
It’s no news that Congress is unpopular. In fact, at times it seems like the only real novelty on Capitol Hill would be a jump in its approval rating.
We Americans are trapped in a political dilemma. We all like representative democracy, but we don’t much like the way it’s performing.
Like other federal scandals before it, the mess involving VA hospitals has followed a well-trod path. First comes the revelation of misdoing. Then comes the reaction: a shocked public, an administration on the defensive, grandstanding members of Congress. Finally, major reform bills get introduced, debated, then put aside when the heat dies down, or the target agency gets more money thrown at the problem.
These days, the scandal involving long wait times at VA hospitals can feel like some made-in-Washington spectacle generated by politicians looking for headlines. But it isn’t. It had its genesis in a late-April report on CNN that as many as 40 veterans may have died waiting for appointments at VA hospitals in Phoenix.
It’s depressing to read poll after poll highlighting Americans’ utter disdain for Congress. But it’s my encounters with ordinary citizens at public meetings or in casual conversation that really bring me up short. In angry diatribes or in resigned comments, people make clear their dwindling confidence in both politicians and the institution itself.
I felt a brief surge of hope about Congress a few weeks ago. 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.
Many trends in American politics and government today make me worry about the health of our representative democracy. These include the decline of Congress as a powerful, coequal branch of government, the accumulation of power in the presidency, and the impact of money on the overall political process.
Five years ago, the federal government spent $169 billion to fund basic research and development. This fiscal year, it’s down to $134 billion.
In 1965, the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills, brought legislation establishing Medicare and Medicaid to the floor of the U.S. House. That was my first year in Congress, and I remember vividly the moment when Mills came to the Democratic caucus to explain his plans.
These are hard times for Congress. Its approval ratings have seen a bump from their historic lows of a few months ago, but it’s a small one. Our representative democracy’s keystone political institution is widely derided as ineffective, unproductive, irrelevant, and sadly out of touch.
At a public gathering the other day, someone asked me how I’d sum up my views on Congress. It was a good question, because it forced me to step back from worrying about the current politics of Capitol Hill and take a longer view.
In his State of the Union speech to Congress last month, President Obama drew widespread attention for pledging to use his executive authority to advance his priorities. He insisted he intends to act with or without Congress, and listed well over a dozen actions he plans to take by executive order. “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families,” he said, “that’s what I’m going to do.”
Every few days, we learn yet one more way in which government’s expanded surveillance powers intrude upon our privacy and civil liberties.
Now that Congress has its immense, $1.1 trillion bipartisan funding bill in hand, Capitol Hill is breathing easier. They ended the specter of a government shutdown for the moment, and funded the federal budget for most of the year. The media has been commending Congress for finally doing its job.
Of all the numbers thrown at us over the course of last year, one stands out for me. I hope we can avoid repeating it this year.
Congress is winding down its historically unproductive session with a small flurry of activity. It’s a welcome change, but so long overdue that it can’t possibly make up for what should have been accomplished on Capitol Hill this year.
Congressional budget negotiators are moving to meet a Dec. 13 deadline to produce, well, something. For weeks, we’ve been told to keep expectations low. There’ll be no “grand bargain,” negotiators say. Commentators believe that even the narrowest agreement will be a signal achievement. So here’s my question: Doesn’t that seem like an awfully low bar to you?
Let’s start with the obvious: A democracy needs intelligence agencies. It needs to know what’s happening in the world — and understand the plans of allies and enemies — to keep the nation prepared and secure.