Congress’ Seven Weeks “Off”

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

It’s unusually quiet in Washington these days.  The lines at Capitol Hill restaurants are slim and you can actually get a hotel room for a night near DuPont Circle for less than a respectable car payment.  Congress is on a break.  A seven week break.  And they’re taking a little heat for it.

It’s easy to beat up on Congress.  As an institution, their public approval rating rivals that of replacement NFL refs.  And much of the scorn is earned.  The Senate hasn’t passed a budget in over three years, and the House continues with cognitive dissonance of passing spending resolutions requiring funds greater than national revenues but not wanting to vote for debt limit increases required to fund appropriations.

The seven weeks Congress is not in Washington is not one of the reasons to beat them up, however.  Instead, it should be welcomed and embraced, provided your Congressman and Senators use the time wisely.

Congress should be a body of the people.  There is nothing “of the people” about Washington.  Four of the nation’s five wealthiest counties surround the District of Columbia, with median household income in each exceeding 100,000 per year.  The economic troubles the country has been mired in skipped the area.  Rents now rival that of Manhattan.

Yet there is more than affluence that makes Washington unique.  The place is a bubble. It is as if we’ve spent the last 200 years taking our leaders from citizens among us and transitioning them into a snow globe.  We watch them as if we derive entertainment when we shake them, but they remain isolated and insulated from the much larger world around them.

Members of Congress now have seven weeks to get back to the real world.  Or not.  Some will hold town halls, some will campaign, and some will travel on junkets.  Seven weeks will likely allow for a bit of each.

The truth is that nothing could be accomplished during the next seven weeks even if Congress held votes seven days of the week. The country is too divided, and both parties live in fear that each vote would give the other some form of advantage.  Congress is looking for the election to provide some sort of mandate to solve the problems at couldn’t find the time or will to solve during the past two years.

The list grows longer.  During a lame duck session, Congress will return with the mindset of college students who forgot to write their term papers before they left on spring break.  On deck will be a plan to find spending cuts in lieu of sequestration for military spending, addressing the expiration of the Bush/Obama tax cuts, deciding if the payroll tax cuts should be extended, renewing the farm bill, and increasing the nation’s debt ceiling.

When Congress reconvenes in mid-November, they will have had almost two months to be closer to the people that elect them than those that surround them in Washington.  Now is the time for them to reconnect with their constituents, and the constituents to seek them out and let opinions be known.

That doesn’t mean that we should find our Congressmen and shout our demands for an unwavering continuation of the same, though a lot of that will happen.  Now is also a good time to listen.  For as much of a bubble the District of Columbia has become, it is still a reality of our political system.  These men and women who represent us have hands on experience in how things work in D.C.  More importantly, they have some insight into what is actually possible, however unpleasant that truth may be.

Tough choices will have to be made this November and December.  Many of them cannot possibly match the campaign rhetoric we will hear over the next few weeks.

Instead of berating Congress for taking a “vacation”, use this time to find your Congressman.  Have a direct conversation with them.  Tell them your opinion, but also be prepared to listen.  You’ll likely find that approach a more productive conversation.


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