Congress is on its August recess, which is why we are hearing so much from our members of Congress. Rather than being on vacation, our senators and representatives look much busier when they come home than they are when they are working in the capital.
Here, they march in parades and dedicate projects and meet with constituents, while there they spend most of their time not passing bills.
Republicans have tried to make Democrat Mike Michaud’s lack of legislative achievement an issue in the gubernatorial race.
But really, what member of Congress has anything to brag about these days? The Senate passed a temporary fix to stop the highway fund from running out of money and you would have thought they invented fire. This is the highway fund, folks – everybody likes highways. This is probably the least controversial thing they are called upon to do. If they couldn’t get this done before lunch on the first day, we have a problem.
Look at the polls. Congress has a 14 percent approval rating in the Real Clear Politics Average, and that can only mean one thing: 14 percent of the people misunderstood the question.
How could you look at what’s happening in D.C. and say, “All in all, I’d have to say they’re doing a pretty good job.”
What’s going on? Why did the country that used to be able to pass sweeping legislation that changed people’s lives grind to a halt?
The answer may be in bringing back some of the things we once had in America that made this country the great nation that it was. That’s why I’m calling for a return to pork-barrel spending, disunity and the Cold War.
Back before earmarks got a bad name, members of Congress could sneak pet projects into unrelated bills. The famous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska led to entirely justified outrage from good government liberals and deficit hawks alike. In 2010, Congress passed rules that made earmarks almost impossible to get.
OK, so now what? It turns out, earmarks made things move. When he was Senate majority leader, Lyndon Johnson could slip in a new dam in Wyoming when he wanted to pass a civil rights bill, and withhold a post office in Louisiana when a senator was out of line.
What can Harry Reid do if all the spending decisions are made in the dark by executive branch bureaucrats?
We may find too late that pork barrel spending was one of the essential elements of functional democracy.
Unity may also be a problem.
I noticed this line in a recent Maine Sunday Telegram column by former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who served in the House from 1981 to 2013: “On almost every policy question, Democrats and Republicans are both more united internally and further apart from each other than they have been … for decades.”
We hear a lot about the “further apart” piece, but the “united internally” factor also deserves some attention.
What can you get done when you can only work with the people that you already work with? In our system, you need control of both houses of Congress, a super-majority in the Senate and the presidency to do anything on a partisan basis. Absent that, you either have to sit back and wait for your side to take over the world or compromise.
Unfortunately, tea party extremism has too many people sitting back. If Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochrane, an opponent of the Voting Rights Act, can’t win a Republican primary without a bunch of black Democratic votes, no one has much room to deal.
Unity sounds good, but a little disunity might actually be better.
And while you don’t hear many kind words about the Cold War, it had some unappreciated perks. In addition to wasteful military spending and McCarthyism, the sense of competition with a rival empire brought out the best in us.
Would we have sent men into orbit if we weren’t afraid the Russians were going to bomb us from space? Would we have gone to the moon if we didn’t think the Russians would get there first?
We also tried to outdo Russia by building a quality of life that was the envy of the world. Programs like Medicare, Medicaid and the War on Poverty came when we were trying to prove to countries on the fence that our version of market-based democracy delivered more than just lavish lifestyles for movie stars, but a humane safety net.
As soon as the Cold War ended, wages stagnated, income inequality soared, homelessness exploded and we invented something called “the working poor.”
And the Cold War made the Olympics more entertaining, so we should really consider bringing it back.
These are just a few ideas. Suggest them to your member of Congress when they sweep through your town this summer.
Maybe they can work on them when they get back to D.C.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or: