With Congress in recess, members are back home, visiting county fairs, talking to Rotary clubs, getting an earful about the paralysis that has caused public sentiment toward Congress to hit historic lows. Former labor secretary Robert Reich has written that, in passing only 15 laws, the present Congress is the least productive since the 1940s.
It’s not as if there is nothing that needs doing. Climate change intensifies. Bridges and other infrastructure crumble. Poverty magnifies its downward spiral, dragging down schools and other institutions that are the best cures for poverty. Laws to limit voting rights are popping up around the country. And members of Congress have run for the hills.
As far as Republicans are concerned, a do-nothing Congress is the right kind of Congress to have. Blocking initiatives from the Obama administration and from the Democratic side of the aisle is what the party is all about.
The party has a ready-made justification for refusing to address pressing issues and, indeed, for crippling the government functions that already exist. The Tea Party branch of the Republican Party is against “big government” and government spending. According to this view, the national debt is a zombie-like monster, stalking the land and sapping the nation’s vitality. Cutting government spending is how we rescue ourselves from the monster.
Because the Tea Party right is firmly entrenched in the U.S. House, constructive action by the Senate has hit a seemingly immovable roadblock. President Obama is probably happy to take a few days on Martha’s Vineyard to contemplate this case study in political dysfunction.
Sen. Patrick Leahy was in Rutland on Tuesday, touring General Electric, discussing issues of domestic violence, meeting with constituents. Many of the crucial issues of the day are the business of the committee he chairs, and his frustration with the present stalemate was evident. On immigration, gun violence, government surveillance and domestic violence, the Senate Judiciary Committee has been in the center of the action. Only on domestic violence has the committee’s work achieved fruition.
The Senate passed an immigration reform bill that came from the Judiciary Committee, but Republicans in the House pronounced it dead on arrival. There have been rumblings among some Republicans that they would consider piecemeal action on components of the Senate bill, but their constituency is loudly anti-immigrant. Some Republicans understand that they damage themselves politically when they alienate Hispanic voters, but it appears they have decided it is even more dangerous to alienate the anti-immigrant Tea Party faction that holds a stranglehold on their party.
Leahy views with scorn the speechifying, grandstanding members of Congress who try to score points without actually doing the hard work of lawmaking. His committee intends to take up the matter of surveillance by the National Security Agency when Congress returns in September. He is reluctant to voice criticism of Obama on the issue, but it is clear that he is not satisfied with Obama’s reassurances on the protection of citizen privacy.
Robert Reich noted in the piece he wrote for The New York Times that the inability of Congress to act does not mean the government is not acting. When Congress punts, other parts of government step forward. For example, Congress’s failure to address the problem of climate change has forced the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to take action. The failure of Congress to act on voting rights will mean that numerous voting rights battles will be fought in courts around the country to prevent voter discrimination in Texas, North Carolina and elsewhere. The failure of Congress to act to stimulate the economy has made the Federal Reserve the agency of last resort in guiding the economy.
None of these agencies is as directly accountable to the voters as Congress is. Democracy suffers when Congress abdicates its responsibilities. Among Republicans there is said to be a group of would-be moderates hoping to break the stranglehold. In the meantime, new budget battles loom when Congress returns in September. Something has to give.
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