Ordinarily, the start of a new Congress is a time for optimism. Not this year.
That’s because last year’s session, with its distressing end by the edge of the fiscal cliff, leaves the new Congress confronting all the challenges that should have been resolved but weren’t: getting spending and the deficit under control, spurring economic growth, and reforming the tax code. We learned a lot about Capitol Hill from the fiscal cliff episode. Not much of it is flattering.
Even when faced with dire consequences, for instance, Congress seems incapable of addressing big national needs in an ambitious way. The traditional legislative system for dealing with tough issues in a rational manner is broken. Instead, like an uncontrollable twitch, Congress repeatedly indulges in fiscal brinksmanship. This leaves it unable to deal effectively with our challenges, raises serious doubts about the viability of our system, and causes the rest of the world to question our ability to lead.
It was noteworthy that the broad outlines of the fiscal cliff agreement were negotiated by two people, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while thousands of tiny but important details were left to staff. Powerful and back-bench legislators alike had less input into what was going on than even the unelected staff members of the key players.
Politicians on Capitol Hill at the moment are simply unwilling to make hard decisions. Commenting on the Republicans in the wake of the negotiations, New York Times columnist David Brooks said, “The core thing [the fiscal cliff deal] says about them is that they want to reform entitlements and cut spending, but they can’t actually propose any plans to do these things because it would be politically unpopular.” The same might be said of Democrats and the White House, who recognize that entitlement reform needs to be on the table, but are reluctant to specify what they want to see.
So we’re left with two parties passing one another in the night, unwilling to risk alienating their core constituencies to come to an agreement. In our representative democracy, Capitol Hill should be the place where their competing concerns get hammered out. What we learned from the fiscal cliff negotiations is that Congress isn’t that place. As a former member, I’m embarrassed that we can’t govern this nation better. Maybe the new Congress will have the courage to change course.
— 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.