By Lee H. Hamilton
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,” 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, with deadlines for the Highway Trust Fund, Export-Import Bank, debt ceiling, and the Treasury’s borrowing power all approaching. My bet is not on smooth sailing.
This is a huge problem. Great democracies do not veer from one doomsday moment to the next, nor do they fund government on a week-to-week basis. Yet that is precisely the habit Congress has developed. It’s embarrassing.
During the weeks Congress held Homeland Security hostage, the department had to get ready for roughly 30,000 employees to be furloughed, ask crucial employees to be willing to work without pay—we’re talking the people on the front lines: the Border Patrol, Coast Guard, screeners at airports, cargo inspectors—and prepare to shut down ongoing research and planning for making the country safer. Terrorism overseas was consuming the attention of our national security agencies, but the department charged with protecting the nation at home had to be consumed with shuttering its operations.
We need a Congress that can address its problems before a crisis comes up. What will it take? Members need to work at legislating every day—not just the three days in the middle of the week.
Congressional leaders need to move legislation through in an orderly fashion. The so-called “Hastert Rule”—that the Speaker of the House will not allow a vote on a bill unless he has a majority of his own party behind it—needs to be jettisoned for good, not just in extreme circumstances. And perhaps most important, the tactic of tying two unrelated issues together in order to force an opponent’s hand needs to be rejected.
The parade of make-or-break issues that Congress faces this year presents myriad opportunities for legislative mischief. If all we see before us is one government shutdown threat after another, the remaining faith Americans hold in our chief lawmaking body could disappear altogether. And deservedly so.
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.