Congress's ill-timed recess

I sure hope the members of Congress who are returning to work this week enjoyed themselves while they were out of town. Because out in the rest of the country, their weeklong Presidents' Day recess certainly left a lot of people feeling jittery.On March 4, the continuing resolution that has kept the federal government operating since last year is due to expire; without some sort of congressional action, the government will shut down. Both Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress have vowed that they understand the seriousness of the situation and have no intention of letting this happen. But that's not the message they sent by leaving Washington with millions of people's plans and futures hanging in the balance. Here's why you should be upset. At the moment, the nation is in the midst of an intense debate about its fiscal future. Momentous decisions are due, including whether or not to raise the federal debt ceiling, how much and where to cut the federal budget, and how to deal with such prime contributors to the federal deficit as Medicare, Medicaid, and defense spending. All of this makes the near future extraordinarily uncertain. Federal agencies, contractors, public workers, retirees, social-service agencies, state and local governments - there's an endless list of people and organizations unable to make plans until these issues are resolved. Now add in the possibility of a shutdown. A "continuing resolution" is essentially a stopgap measure, an agreement by Congress to fund the government at its previous level, so that it can buy a little more time to figure out what it really wants to do. It is not a good way of doing business, because it means that Congress has been unable to agree on basic government spending, but it has become a regular feature of life on Capitol Hill in recent years. And the current resolution, the one that allows the government to operate, expires in a few days. Because of its recess, Congress allowed itself at best five days - and, given its habit of working less than a five-day week, probably fewer - to come to an agreement on how to proceed. So in the meantime, hundreds of federal agencies, the many thousands of workers who staff them, and the untold number of businesses and ordinary Americans who depend on their activities were left to cool their heels. Federal workers prepared for layoffs, private contractors confronted the possibility of no income, veterans wondered whether they'd be seeing benefits checks, cities and states - already under immense fiscal pressure - eyed the possibility of running out of cash to pay for programs normally funded by Washington. The leadership of both houses will protest that while their members were back home politicking and taking the temperature of their constituencies, several key members and their staffs were working toward a resolution. But it's hard to take them seriously when they, in turn, were willing to treat so many Americans' livelihoods and wellbeing so lightly. If Congress were serious, it would have remained in town to wrestle with the gut-wrenching decisions it has to make about what kind of government it wants to see. Before the recess, both parties were drawing lines in the sand about a shutdown; not only were they unable to resolve the question, but by fleeing town they suggested they couldn't even meet to discuss it. One wonders what concerns members had that outweighed their responsibility to make the country work. Congressional recesses are built into the schedule for a reason: they allow members of Congress to plan ahead. But when Congress is hell-bent on keeping to that schedule even when it means robbing the rest of the country of its own ability to plan ahead, that's not an acceptable or responsible way for Congress to carry out its central duty. Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

********** Published: March 3, 2011 - Volume 9 - Issue 46