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What happens when Congress can't do its job?


This is an excerpt from "What Happens When Congress Fails to Do Its Job?", which appears in the latest issue of Newsweek. Full thing here.

In the months leading up to the health-care-reform vote, there was much talk that Congress is broken and serious reform is necessary. Some would say the bill's passage is a decisive refutation of that position. They are wrong.

What we have learned instead is that even in those rare moments when bold action should be easy, little can be done. Consider the position of the Democrats over the last year: a popular new president, the largest majority either party has held in the Senate since the post-Watergate wave, a 40-seat majority in the House, and a financial crisis. Empowered by all that, Congress has managed to pass a lot of legislation, and some of it has been historic. But our financial system is not fixed and our health-care problems are not solved. Indeed, when it comes to the toughest decisions Congress must make, our representatives have passed them off to some other body or some future generation.

The architects of the health-care-reform bill, for instance, couldn't bring themselves to propose the difficult reforms necessary to assure Medicare -- and the government's -- solvency. So they created an independent panel of experts who will have to propose truly difficult reforms to enable the Medicare system to survive. These recommendations would take the fast track through Congress, protected from not just the filibuster but even from revision. In fact, if Congress didn't vote on them, they'd still become law. "I believe this commission is the largest yielding of sovereignty from the Congress since the creation of the Federal Reserve," says Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, and he meant it as a compliment.

Cap-and-trade, meanwhile, is floundering in the Senate. In the event that it dies, the Environmental Protection Agency has been preparing to regulate carbon on its own. Some senators would like to block the EPA from doing so, and may yet succeed. But those in Congress who want to avert catastrophic climate change, but who don't believe they can pass legislation to help do so, are counting on the EPA to act in their stead.

The financial meltdown was, in many ways, a model of quick congressional action. TARP had its problems, and the stimulus was too small, but both passed, and quickly. After they'd passed, though, it became clear they weren't sufficient, and that Congress wasn't going to be able to muster further action. So the Federal Reserve, in consultation with congressional leaders, unleashed more than a trillion dollars into the marketplace. It was still the American people's money being invested, but it didn't need 60 votes in the Senate.

Congress was reticent to do more about the financial crisis because of concern over the deficit. But even apparent bipartisan agreement wasn't sufficient to compel action. Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) lead the Budget Committee, and they called for their committee -- and all the other committees -- to be bypassed altogether in favor of a deficit commission operating outside the normal legislative structure. "Some have argued that House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over health, retirement and revenue issues should individually take up legislation to address the imbalance," they wrote in a joint op-ed. "But that path will never work. The inability of the regular legislative process to meaningfully act on this couldn't be clearer." They were right: their proposal was defeated by a filibuster and the president formed a deficit commission by executive order instead.

As for foreign policy and national security, Congress has so abdicated its role over war and diplomacy that Garry Wills, in his new book, Bomb Power, says that we've been left with an "American monarch," which is only slightly scarier-sounding than the "unitary executive" theory that the Bush administration advocated and implemented.

This is not a picture of a functioning legislature.

Some might throw up their hands and welcome the arrival of outside cavalries, of rule by commissions and central banks and executive agencies. But there is a cost when Congress devolves power to others. The American public knew much more about the stimulus than about the Federal Reserve's "quantitative easing" program because Congress is much more accessible and paid more attention by the media. The EPA can impose blunt regulations on polluters, but it can't put a price on carbon in order to create a real market for cleaner energy. The debt commission's recommendations will still require a congressional vote. When Congress doesn't work, the federal government doesn't work, no matter how hard it tries.

Read the whole thing.

Photo credit: Jason Reed/Getty Images.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 29, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Articles , Congress , Government  
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I was criticized just prior to the Christmas Eve vote in the Senate.

The Dems had 60 votes, I knew they were going to pass something.

I thought we should thank our lucky stars there was no public “option” in the Senate bill.

I was told I was naïve, that the Dems just wanted to get their foot through the door.

And that somewhere down the line, the fiscal mess we're already in will get that much messier.

And more severe measures will be called for, like a public “option.” Like single-payer.

All that and more may be true.

Where I differ from my friends is that I do want universal coverage. And in order to achieve that goal a “strong” individual mandate is a necessity.

But any individual mandate, whether it's strong or weak, is un-American.

Americans must choose to participate. And I do believe many will.

RomneyCare has a “soft” individual mandate.

I'm not sure what that means. I don't have a good answer on this one.

Then Scott Brown won in Massachusetts. We all thought that was a game changer.

But it turned out not to be.

Truth be told, the House had every right to pass the Senate bill “as is.”

But when the Dems decided to go for reconciliation on the fix-it bill, that's when they crossed the Rubicon.

What should have happened?

The Senate bill and the House bill should have gone to conference.

Any conference report would have faced a 60-vote threshold in the Senate.

And we would have ended up with a much better bill, and a much less bitter populace.

So what now?

Only the small-brained would believe Pelosi's utterances about ObamaCare being fiscally responsible.

So I hope the right doesn't blow this.

Please remain calm and don't go off the deep end.

Listen to Paul Ryan. Listen to Regina Herzlinger. Listen to Judd Gregg.

And other experts on health care reform who must guide us now on the best path forward.

Most importantly, please nominate candidates who can win.

We have the middle and we must hold on to it.

Yes, that squishy middle that so many of you abhor.

This is the group that elected Obama.

And this very same group is the only one which can save us from the worst excesses of ObamaCare.

Blessed Is Truth

Posted by: SisterRosetta | March 29, 2010 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, but the job of Congress is not to micromanage the economy. Congress needs to create programs and automatic stabilizers that do not require hasty action. Congress should leave the day to day management to agencies that can respond in a timely fashion.

Congress should fund the DC fire department and let them make the day to day decisions about putting out fires. Micromanagement wouldn't work to call Congress into session to act every time there is a fire to control.

Congress then has the power of oversight of the agencies it creates and to changes the operating rules. The idea of good legislation is to put a good system in place with adequate oversight. Any system that needs micromanagement is either not a good system or lacks adequate built-in oversight.

The present crisis has made it clear that the automatic stabilizers especially with regard to unemployment benefits, workforce training and aid to the states is inadequate.

Posted by: bakho | March 29, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

Ezra makes it sounds like these are irreversibly terrible, but the problems seem rather mild. It should take *some* time for the government to come up with programs that spend a trillion dollars. I think it would be better if there was more in the way of the treasury spending a billion dollars. But . . . well, you get what you get.

Neocons complained about how long it got to get the Iraq War going. Maybe that should have taken longer. There's a reason things shouldn't move through congress at the speed of light. I'm convinced half the folks voting on the bills don't ever read them, except for the titles. "The Pro-Children and Old People Act". Hmm. That sounds good. I'll vote for it.

On the whole, I think slowing down is a good thing, but I think there should be a time limit to denying an up or down vote. Or there should be a point where extending debate after 30 days requires a 3/5ths majority vote (a sort of reverse cloture). I think it's easy to confuse things that are good (slowing legislation down, requiring slightly more thoughtful deliberation) with indefinite obstruction and stonewalling.

There are methods to address some forms of stonewalling. Recess appointments are an example. A rule that would make it progressively harder to filibuster as time went on--such as an automatic end of the filibuster, unless the senate votes 3/5th majority to continue, after 15 or 30 or 60 days--might be the sort of tool. Replacing the congress with more unaccountable bureaucracies is probably not the best approach.

But, right now, that seems to be what we're stuck with.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 29, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Good piece, Ezra, though a wee bit Village of you, to assert that the dynamics of the Social Security fight in 2005-6 are directly comparable to those of the two healthcare reform battles, particularly in the context of what happened to the stock market in the years after. Did your editors demand that false equivalence?

The reference to Michael Bennet of Colorado (your subs at Newsweek gave him two Ts) felt like it should have had more from him: is there an interview on the cutting room floor?

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | March 29, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

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