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Tuesday, April 28, 2015
Congress and the president need to consult - and not just on Iran
Sustained and respectful consultation between the President and Congress would go a long way toward avoiding the bitter battles over foreign policy that we've seen of late.
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.
What lies behind these moves? I think Congress feels left out of foreign policy-making.
I have considerable sympathy for this impulse. Over the decades, too much power has drifted to the President when it comes to foreign affairs. The Congress has been deferential, even timid, in allowing this to happen.
Moreover, the administration has not done an especially good job of consulting with Congress. The President is the chief actor in foreign policy, and it's his obligation to reach out and develop a sustained dialogue with Congress on foreign policy matters. As far as I can tell, he has not done that sufficiently.
Governing by crisis isn't governing at all
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.
I wish I could be so confident. Because if you look at the year ahead, the congressional calendar is littered with opportunities to do just that.
Next month, unless Congress acts, doctors will see a steep cut in Medicare reimbursements. In May, the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money, meaning that infrastructure projects all across the country could grind to a halt. The following month, the federal Export-Import Bank's charter runs out. By the end of summer, Congress will need to raise the debt ceiling. Then it will have to find a way of funding the government for next year, deal with across-the-board spending cuts that are scheduled to take hold, and make it possible for the Treasury to continue to borrow money.
With the Budget, the President calls the shots
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.
This is the most important government document produced each year, so its heft is more than physical. The budget is how we decide what share of this country's economic resources we should devote to government-and how we should spend them. It's where we set out our national priorities, sorting out how to allocate money among defense, the environment, education, medical research, food safety, public works... You get the idea.
Which is why you saw the political maneuvering begin the moment it arrived. In a press conference after President Obama submitted his budget, House Speaker John Boehner dismissed it out of hand. "The president gave the American people a good laugh yesterday," he said. Every year, politicians play some variation on this theme. I've lost count of the times I've heard a budget declared "dead on arrival."
Can we have a regular congress?
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.
This is a promising sign that new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might have meant it when he declared last year that he wants the Senate to return to the "regular order" of debate and amendments. For the last few weeks, a favorite inside-the-Beltway guessing game has been whether he'd be willing to stick with it in the face of demands, sure to come, to reduce debate and amendments and expedite approval of bills.
I know you're thinking this is just inside baseball. Let me explain why it matters. In Washington, the line between process and policy is blurred. The policies Congress produces are forged by the process it uses, and the leaders of the two houses have great power over that process - and hence over the results. Talking about how Congress makes laws is the same as talking about what it does in those laws.
So a return to the "regular order," on either or both sides of the Capitol, has enormous implications. There is no single solution to Congress's problems, but it's hard to imagine Congress can get past its dysfunction without adopting the regular order.
If you're uncertain what I mean, you're not alone. There are a lot of lawmakers who have very little idea what it entails, either; because they were elected after Congress abandoned it in the 1990s.
It'll never be time for term limits on Congress
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.
I know a lot of people to whom this is good news. I know them, because I hear from them every time I speak at a public event that allows for a give-and-take with the audience. Americans are frustrated with the federal government as a whole and with Congress in particular, and are searching for a simple solution. The notion that the bums could be thrown out automatically has great appeal.
Now it's time to focus on growing the economy
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.
Yet the public remains unconvinced. This is partly because perceptions haven't caught up to reality. For many middle- and lower-class families, economic circumstances have not changed very much. Average wages, adjusted for inflation, have not risen in keeping with the good economic news. The median net worth of households is actually a bit less than it was in 2010, just after the official end of the recession - and the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us is wider than ever.
Look up, Americans, it's not as bad as you think
We are one glum country.
Trust in the federal government is at historic lows, according to Gallup. More than half of the respondents to an October Rasmussen poll think our best days are behind us. And just a few weeks ago, an NBC/Wall St. Journal poll found that the one thing Americans agree upon whatever their race or circumstances is that the system is stacked against people like them.
Scratch an American, it seems, and you'll get a litany of complaints about our representative democracy.
I see this defeatism all around me. When I speak to classes of university students, I almost always ask for a show of hands on whether these young people believe the U.S. is in decline or on the rise. Every time, the room is evenly split. That's a lot of people who are losing faith in our system.
Divided government does not have to be dysfunctional
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.
The big question, as the old Congress reconvenes and prepares to make way for next year's version, is whether the two parties will work more closely together to move the country forward or instead lapse back into confrontation and deadlock. I suspect the answer will be a mix: modest progress on a few issues, but no major reforms.
Overall, the deep frustration Americans feel toward Washington will likely continue. Especially since, despite the urgent problems confronting us, the House leadership has announced an astoundingly relaxed 2015 agenda that includes not a single five-day work week, 18 weeks with no votes scheduled, and just one full month in session: January.
Still, there is hope for at least a modicum of progress. The President wants to enhance his legacy. More politicians these days seem to prefer governing to posturing. The Republican Party may have won big in the elections, but it still cannot govern alone: it will need Democratic votes in the Senate and the cooperation of the President. And both parties want to demonstrate that they recognize they're responsible for governing.
Congress faces plenty of issues that need addressing, which means that skillful legislators who want to show progress have an extensive menu from which to choose. Trade, health care, terrorism, responsible budgeting, rules on greenhouse gas emissions... All of these are amenable to incremental progress.
Which is not to say that progress is inevitable. President Obama acted to halt deportations of millions of illegal immigrants, though he did so without Congress. His action could unleash unpredictable consequences. Meanwhile, the new Republican Senate is almost certain to give the President's nominees a hard time; while GOP senators are unlikely to want to appear too tough on Loretta Lynch, the nominee for attorney general, the gloves will almost certainly come off for nominees who must negotiate hearings after her.
Yet indications of what next year may be like have already begun to emerge. Bills with a relatively narrow focus that enjoy bipartisan support - boosting agricultural development aid overseas, funding research into traumatic brain injuries, giving parents with disabled children a tax break on savings for long-term expenses - either have passed the "lame-duck" Congress or stand a good chance of doing so.
In the end, 2015 will see a mix of small steps forward and backward. There's little chance of a minimum wage increase and it's unlikely the budget will be passed in an orderly and traditional manner. Similarly, significant and difficult issues like major entitlement and tax reform will prove hard to budge, and comprehensive immigration reform is a near impossibility. There will be no knockdown punch on Obamacare, but we'll see plenty of efforts to chip away at it.
Why government openness matters
One of the fundamental lessons of the 9/11 tragedy 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.
Why government fails, and what we should do about it
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.
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