Not many people outside of Capitol Hill paid attention last month when the congressional leadership released next year’s legislative schedule. Its headline feature is a strikingly long summer recess: half of July and all of August, along with a few spotty weeks of work before the November election. There are plenty of other breaks as well; in all, the House will be in session for less than one-third of the year, and the Senate only a bit longer.
I suppose we could take Congress to task for not working hard enough, and I’m sure plenty of people will do so. But the schedule reveals an even more serious issue: it suggests that Congress, or at least its leadership, is unconcerned about how ineffective and even irrelevant the institution has become when it comes to policy making.
This has been a long-term trend, with plenty of responsibility to be laid at the feet of political leaders in both parties. Even some recent signs of progress, like the rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aren’t enough. Many people, within Washington and beyond, now take Congress’s weakened state for granted, almost as if it’s the natural order of things.
That is because wherever you turn, Congress has lost ground as an institution. The contrast with the presidency is especially stark. Every President in recent memory has expanded the power of his office, and for good reason. The modern world demands quick, decisive action, and Americans like presidents who act forcefully. Yet the result is that the balance of power has shifted dangerously toward the President.
This is especially apparent on two fronts where Congress ought to be resolute. One is the budget — the basic blueprint for the government — which is now largely the President’s responsibility. Congress cannot even produce a real budget any more; every year, it kicks the serious fiscal questions down the road — from hard decisions on tax reform to even harder decisions on spending. Its deference to the President is even more striking when it comes to committing U.S. forces overseas. Members of Congress happily criticize the President on issue after issue, lamenting that they cannot trust him and cannot work with him. Yet on some of the most important questions the government faces — whether, how, where, and when to intervene using military force — they defer utterly to the White House.
They do the same with the regulatory agencies. Members love to criticize the EPA, for instance, but rarely put their words into legislative action, and they fail repeatedly to do the kind of routine, painstaking oversight of federal agencies that would help eliminate wasted resources and bureaucratic overreach.
At the same time, they’ve handed economic power to the Federal Reserve. Fifty years ago, the ordinary American who could name the chair of the Fed was rare. Today, it’s hard to pick up a newspaper without reading about Janet Yellen and the Fed’s board of governors. Because Congress has essentially given up on trying to shape fiscal policy, it has put the Fed in charge of keeping the economy growing.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has become the principal way our country deals with a host of tough issues like abortion and affirmative action. These are matters that, ideally, would be wrestled through the legislative process. Instead, they’re up to the Court.
Congress these days is failing to assert its responsibilities under the Constitution — it is far from being the co-equal branch our Founders envisioned. And many of its members agree. They don’t believe the institution they serve is doing its job — they’d point, for instance, to immigration reform, which Speaker Paul Ryan recently announced the House would not even touch next year, despite the pressing need. Here is an issue practically begging for rolled-up sleeves on Capitol Hill. Yet instead of action, they get a congressional schedule that sends members back to their districts for most of the year.
Which may be the most distressing part of it all. Instead of being concerned enough about Congress’s weakness and inactivity to take action, its leaders, at least, appear to believe that many of the toughest issues on the national agenda are beyond their capability to resolve.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.