David Adler: Our unreal Congress: Irresponsible and irrelevant

August 15, 2013 

For all of its warts, Congress has addressed critical issues. In due course, it has produced landmark legislation that established Social Security, the GI Bill, the nation's highway system, Medicare, Medicaid, the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Today, Congress is increasingly irresponsible, unaccountable and irrelevant. The institution, once characterized by the founders as the bedrock of the republic, has become a victim of its own members' preening, posturing and self-aggrandizement. It seems incapable of seriously addressing the challenges of our time.

Great questions of public policy - immigration, health care, voting rights, foreign affairs, national security and fiscal order, among them - confront America, but compromise and mature, workable solutions are like orphans hoping for adoption.

Congress, which has the power but evidently not the wit or wisdom to allay a nation's anxiety, spends its time sparring over ideological principles, drawing lines in the sand and threatening to shut down the government.

Now, members of Congress have retreated to their homes for the August recess. Cynics among us might say that their departure from Washington is the lesser of two evils. Historically, the "work period" has represented an occasion for town hall meetings and an opportunity for representatives to take the pulse of the people and the measure of voters' views on pending programs and policies.

No longer. Across the country, fewer representatives are hosting town hall meetings, shunning opportunities to respond to questions from constituents and evading accountability. It's not difficult to understand why: Since 2009, when town hall meetings became a spearhead for political activists, more than occasionally shrill and unduly aggressive, incumbents have seen their meetings hijacked by a handful of zealots. Members have been shouted down; in some places, they have practically been run out of the meetings that they called.

But if the process of those town hall meetings was flawed, and remarks and assertions ill-tempered and uncivil, they were and remain important mechanisms of Democracy. Without town hall meetings, congressional representatives are increasingly unaccountable.

Congressional indifference to the means and methods of accountability, at a juncture when it is increasingly irresponsible, could not come at a worse time. What is the electorate to think, after all, when its representatives in Washington are participants in hyper-partisanship and ideological mud wrestling and evade face-the-music meetings?

It's not just that Congress has grown remote. As a national problem solver, Congress is growing increasingly irrelevant, which is hard to fathom when we consider that it is, as James Madison said, the first branch of the republican government, endowed by the Constitution with far greater powers and responsibilities than its sister branches.

The continuing abdication by Congress of its responsibilities in foreign relations and national security measures is, by now, a familiar story. Executive power in this realm has grown far beyond constitutional dimensions, yet members of Congress express little interest in reclaiming its lost powers and restoring constitutional balance.

In recent times, Congress has largely abdicated its fiscal responsibilities and left the Federal Reserve to exercise its monetary tools to promote and regulate the economy. What's become of congressional stewardship in promoting economic growth and stability? Or, for that matter, the increasingly broad deference to administrative agencies, a practice that marks the continued decline of public policymaking by Congress?

Congressional irresponsibility and growing irrelevance are compounded by the evasion of accountability. For the sake of the health and vitality of the republic, accountability to the public must transcend a representative's electoral interests. The responsibility of members to answer questions, to explain the reasoning behind their positions and votes on matters of public policy, and to engage the citizenry in a dialogue is of paramount importance to our nation. Democracy requires it.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service