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On cusp of budget deal, Congress far from functional

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The extreme efforts involved in simply passing a budget, the most basic job for lawmakers, underscore how broken the process has become on Capitol Hill – a place many members now describe as frustrating and joyless.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York (l.) walk to the chamber after collaborating on a budget deal, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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When Senate minority leader Charles Schumer announced a two-year budget deal this week he was all smiles.

True, each side made painful concessions. There’s no resolution for young unauthorized immigrant “Dreamers” (to the dismay of Democrats). And the debt looks set to increase (to the ire of GOP deficit hawks). But the military gets the spending increase it wanted, while lawmakers also boosted funds for domestic priorities like health care and disaster relief. The deal also lifts the debt ceiling for a year, so the United States won’t be in danger of default.

“That’s compromise. That’s governing,” Senator Schumer said. “That’s what we should be doing more of in this body.”

But there’s a flip side to this feel-good moment. The budget deal comes months late, as a fourth temporary spending bill to keep the government going was poised to run out at midnight Thursday. Lawmakers universally describe the budgeting process – Congress’s most basic job – as being in a state of chronic breakdown, Exhibit A for dysfunction on the Hill.

If the public gives Congress low approval ratings, well, so do lawmakers – who themselves are highly frustrated.

“These simple, basic tasks of governing ... become Herculean efforts,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, speaking with a clutch of reporters at last week’s GOP retreat in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Since last spring, he said, “I’ve been screaming to our leadership and others that we need a [budget] agreement.”

Capitol Hill is not a happy place these days. Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia put it bluntly when he reportedly told Schumer and other colleagues, “This place sucks.”

When asked to comment on the “joy factor” of working in Congress, Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, responded: “ ‘Joy’ is not among the top 10 words that I would use to describe it.”

And while it may seem a bit of a touchy-feely concept for a member of Congress, unhappiness and frustration have real consequences. They sap energy, feed cynicism, and undermine the ability of members to work together, says former House historian Ray Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

“[Members] lose the will to make the extra effort,” he says. “They become more mechanical and routine in the kind of work they’re doing, when they should be thrilled and excited about the possibilities they can achieve.”

Retirements on the rise

After a while, that dissatisfaction can drive members from Congress.

Last month Republican Trey Gowdy, the Republican chair of the powerful House Committee on Government Oversight, announced he would not be running for reelection, but would return to the “justice system” in South Carolina. “Whatever skills I may have are better utilized in a courtroom than in Congress, and I enjoy our justice system more than our political system,” the former federal prosecutor said in a statement.

Just days after Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee announced last fall that he would not seek re-election, he quipped to a Democratic colleague, “So, are you really jealous?” The answer: “Yes. It seduces me every day. Every day I think about it.”

Being a member of Congress has never been easy. Awaiting Republicans at their retreat last week was a thick, paperback tome: “Surviving Inside Congress – Fifth Edition.” Weekly travel back and forth between Washington and home take a toll, and no one likes the constant fundraising.

But the hyper-partisanship and lack of civil discourse have made things far worse. So, too, has the unpredictability and divisive rhetoric of President Trump.

“Mr. Trump has thrown a huge wrench into how both parties feel they have to react vis-a-vis the executive branch,” says Mr. Smock. Trust and civility are key to getting things done when people don’t agree. “If the president says one day he’s for something and the next day he’s against it, that has an effect all up and down the House and Senate.”

The Common Sense Coalition

Interestingly, this week’s budget deal includes a mechanism to try to fix the broken budget system. It calls for the appointment of a special joint committee to come up with budget-reform legislation. All kinds of ideas are circulating on the Hill about how to fix the process – though it could also be argued that it’s not the process, but the partisanship that is the problem.

Indeed, lawmakers who are trying to bridge the vast political divide and cut through the zero-sum gamesmanship have formed bipartisan caucuses in both chambers.

Their names speak to a spirit of pragmatism – the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, which has nearly 50 members and was formed a year ago, and the Common Sense Coalition in the Senate. The Senate group has its roots in 2013, when about a dozen members got together to help end the partial government shutdown. It went dormant, but was revived last month with more members, about 25, to end the brief January shutdown.

As long as the Republican-led, 435-member House continues to operate under its party rule of only bringing up bills that a majority of the majority supports, it’s hard to see how the problem solvers can have much substantive influence, says Smock.

But the outlook for the Common Sense Coalition is more promising in the Senate, he says. They represent a quarter of the Senate, in a chamber where a single member can have tremendous power.

The group of senators has been meeting regularly in what’s come be to be known as “Little Switzerland,” the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine. Senators meet without staff present, sustained by Girl Scout cookies and respectful exchanges of views. When they leave, many are literally beaming.

Unlike the various bipartisan “gangs” that form to produce comprehensive legislation or solve particular problems, the agenda of this group seems to be organically evolving. It’s focusing now on the upcoming immigration debate, set to start on the Senate floor next week, when the group hopes to offer an amendment.

The coalition’s aim is not necessarily to draft bills or become a super committee, says Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine, “but to try to contribute to the discussion so that we can make this place work better.”

“People are talking, they’re open, they’re sharing their thoughts and it makes it a much more satisfying place to work if you have that kind of atmosphere,” says Senator King, who caucuses with the Democrats. “I told Doug Jones [the newly elected Democrat from Alabama] ‘You happen to have arrived at this place when there’s been more bipartisan discussion and work than I’ve seen in the past five years.’ ”

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