Congress Tests Its Own Willingness to Get Things Done

Back in mid-January, among people who pay attention to the state of American democracy, perhaps the most widely circulated quote from a news article had nothing to do with the presidential primaries or drama in Congress. Rather, it was from a European ambassador who likened the United States to “a fat buffalo trying to take a nap” while wolves circle.

The point this ambassador was making—along with other diplomats to whom Politico foreign affairs correspondent Nahal Toosi spoke—is that as seen from abroad, the US is failing basic tests. “The diplomats are aghast that so many U.S. leaders let their zeal for partisan politics prevent the basic functions of government,” Toosi wrote.

Normally, I’d read something like that, think, “Huh, that’s interesting,” and move on. But I keep returning to it in my mind.

When I began work on this commentary, my plan was to praise the budget agreement that Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer reached in early January. It was a sign that maybe Congress was ready to avoid a government shutdown and get its most important work done.

The waters have gotten muddier since then, though both houses of Congress did agree to another continuing resolution that will allow them to keep the government operating into March. The truth is, with a closely divided electorate and a narrowly divided US House, this kind of brinksmanship may be the best we can expect. In our system, someone will always be unhappy. We make progress when political leaders who are willing to search for common ground find people they can work with.

To some extent, the diplomats in Politico are just reacting to the messy way policy sometimes gets made in the US. Still, there’s no question that our ability to move forward as a country on key questions is hamstrung on Capitol Hill right now.

There are plenty of reasons for hopefulness, including a functioning Senate and a perception among Democrats that Johnson, as a Republican House speaker, has been willing to deal honestly with them. But the fact that there is so little predictability about Congress’s ability to get things done is worrisome. As long as congressional leaders on both sides can keep talking to one another and are willing to seek points of agreement, our system can function. If that stops, maybe we’re a fat buffalo after all.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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