Under pressure, Congress often kicks the can

A U.S. flag flies in front of the dome of the U.S. Capitol February 12, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hundreds of lawmakers fled hot and humid Washington on Thursday and Friday for yet another congressional recess, many returning to their states and districts to regroup and gird themselves for a heady summer of legislating.

Or not legislating, as it were - left behind in Washington was a considerable to-do list. Student loan rates are scheduled to double on July 1, and members of both parties conceded that Congress would not take action before then, promising a retroactive fix that erases the days (or weeks...or months) during which the doubled rate holds sway.

The House and Senate, unable to agree on a solution, are likely to pursue a one-year extension of the current rate - as they did last year at this time - while lawmakers in both parties and chambers iron out their differences.

Ditto on the farm bill, a funding proposal that passed the Senate and failed to clear the House due to disagreements between the parties on funding for social services like food stamps. Some lawmakers are now eyeing a temporary extension of the current farm bill's funding levels to prevent calamity and allow Congress some breathing room to find a solution.

The debacles over student loans and the farm bill are only the latest two iterations of a familiar pattern in Congress.

Recall, the Bush-era tax cuts were extended at the end of 2010 and again at the end of 2012 before being ultimately resolved in the "fiscal cliff" agreement in early 2013.

And the budget cuts known as the "sequester" were implemented and triggered because Congress could not agree on a comprehensive debt reduction package. Even the scheduled trigger of the cuts was pushed back three months at the end of 2012 to buy lawmakers more time to avert them.

Ultimately, Congress failed to stave off the cuts - sequestration landed as (re)scheduled.

The lesson from these examples and others: Congress seemingly isn't working how and when it's supposed to work.

But how did we get here? Who's to blame? And how can a gridlocked legislature get its groove back and resume tackling big issues in a big way?

One thing's for sure, said the American Enterprise Institute's Norm Ornstein in an interview with CBSNews.com - it didn't used to be this way.

"Congress almost always has difficulty overcoming its inertia and doing something significant without a crisis or a triggering event - that's true when it's a functional place, but they get things done," said Ornstein, a scholar and longtime observer of Congress. Now, however, it's a different story. "In this Congress, the dysfunction is so high, the level of tribalism is so great, the mindset of the minority party within divided government is such that the typical triggering events just don't work."

"Almost always, in the past, we've found the capacity to act, even if one party feels like it was shafted," he said.

Ornstein blamed many factors, chief among them an "asymmetric polarization" that has produced a "Republican Party, particularly in the House, that has just gone off the rails, again and again."

The widening ideological divide between the parties, driven chiefly by Republican extremism, is best exemplified by the recent dispute over the farm bill, Ornstein said, when Republican leaders in the House "moved dramatically to the right on slashing food stamps, but still had 62 Republicans who didn't think it went far enough."

"If the speaker can't rally his own troops, what does that tell you?" Ornstein asked.

Former Rep. Bob Walker, R-Pa., who served in House leadership during his two decades on Capitol Hill, brushed aside Ornstein's argument as "nonsense."

"I think to throw it on the Republicans is a misnomer," he said in an interview with CBSNews.com. "Everybody wants to say it's the tea party - that's just nonsense. Are there some tea party people who just want to vote no on everything? Yes. But the vast number of guys who arrived in 2010 are pretty responsible legislators at this point. They're learning the ropes, and they're doing better, but the lack of an open process shuts them out of decision-making, and that frustrates them."

  • Jake Miller

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