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By Lee H. Hamilton
Deeply unpopular and flagrantly unproductive, Congress is on its August recess right now. It won’t return until Sept. 9, after a five-week recess, leaving itself just a few days to settle issues like raising the debt ceiling and passing a federal budget. Here are some things you should know about where it stands at this stage of the game:
• Few, if any, Congresses can match this one for futility — whatever your politics. The repeal of Obamacare, action on climate change, a “grand bargain” on our fiscal problems — the list of dropped balls is long. A few weeks ago Speaker John Boehner told Americans not to judge Congress by how many laws it passes, but by how many it repeals. It hasn’t succeeded on either count.
• The budget process is a mess. None of the appropriations bills needed for the government to continue running after Sept. 30 has been enacted. Passing a budget is the most basic function of government, and Congress can’t manage it.
• Members of Congress do not like to compromise. The parties are divided ideologically and neither can get things done on its own. That’s when responsible lawmakers usually step forward to build a consensus, but in this Congress, either they don’t know how or they’re not interested.
• Hardly anyone thinks Congress is doing a good job — it’s consistently below 20 percent approval ratings — and most people think it’s too partisan. Yet members aren’t concerned. They’ve become skilled at running against Washington, even though they are Washington, and they count on voters supporting their own member of Congress, however unpopular Congress as a whole has become.
• As lobbyists descend in swarms on Capitol Hill, they hold more power than ever. They rain cash, twist arms, and even draft bills — all the things that powerful congressional leaders used to do. Perhaps this is why a good number of my former colleagues have made a tidy living for themselves by becoming lobbyists.
• Finally, all of this contributes to the emerging themes for the 2014 congressional campaign. Candidates will clearly run against the mess in Washington, and a good number of them, though not all, will talk regularly about the need to be bipartisan. The big question for 2015 will be whether the successful ones can translate their talk into legislation to help move the country forward.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.