Ordinarily, the start of a new Congress is a time for optimism. Fresh faces and a purposeful spirit combine to get Congress off to a hope-filled start.
Yet Capitol Hill right now is far from optimistic. That's because last year's session, with its distressing end by the edge of the fiscal cliff, left the new Congress confronting head on all the challenges that should have been resolved but weren't: getting spending and the deficit under control, spurring economic growth, and reforming the tax code.
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Congressional performance at the end of 2012 fell far short, leaving not just a sour taste in most Americans' mouths, but real cause for concern about how Congress operates. We learned a lot about Capitol Hill from the fiscal cliff episode, and not much of it is flattering.
Even when faced with dire consequences, for instance, Congress seems incapable of addressing big national needs in an ambitious way. In an earlier effort to punt on fiscal issues, it created the "fiscal cliff" -- and then failed to deal with it. Instead, it cobbled together yet another stopgap measure at the last moment. All of the key issues it had a chance to resolve -- the sequester, spending, the debt ceiling -- will have to be revisited in the next few months. And that's before Congress can even get to the real issues of reviving economic growth with investments in research, human capital, and infrastructure.
This throws into sharp relief an even more fundamental problem: the traditional legislative system for dealing with tough issues in a rational manner is broken. The time-honored approach afforded by the regular committee process, the pull and tug of negotiations as legislation worked its way through multiple players, the vetting and deal-making that once took place in a Congress organized to do so -- all of that is gone.
Instead, like an uncontrollable twitch, Congress repeatedly indulges in fiscal brinkmanship. This leaves it unable to deal effectively with our challenges, raises serious doubts about the viability of our system, and causes the rest of the world to question our ability to lead.
It was noteworthy that the broad outlines of the fiscal cliff agreement were negotiated by two people, Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while thousands of tiny but important details were left to staff. Some of the most prominent names in American politics decried the lack of transparency in the process and their own irrelevance to it. The issues being negotiated were of enormous importance to their constituents, but powerful and backbench legislators alike had less input into what was going on than even the nonelected staff members of the key players. Their only role was an up-or-down vote at the end.
This is worth noticing because one other thing the fiscal cliff fiasco made clear is that the approach many new members of Congress took during the campaign -- that they intend to help Congress get things done -- is sorely needed. Politicians on Capitol Hill at the moment are simply unwilling to make truly hard decisions.
Commenting on the Republicans in the wake of the negotiations, New York Times columnist David Brooks said, "The core thing (the fiscal cliff deal) says about them is that they want to reform entitlements and cut spending, but they can't actually propose any plans to do these things because it would be politically unpopular." The same might be said of Democrats and the White House, who recognize that entitlement reform needs to be on the table, but are reluctant to specify what they want to see.
So we're left with two parties passing one another in the night, unable to come to terms and unwilling to risk alienating their core constituencies to do so. In our system of representative democracy, Capitol Hill should be the place where their competing concerns get hammered out. What we learned from the fiscal cliff negotiations is that Congress isn't that place. As a former member, I'm embarrassed that we can't govern this nation better. Maybe the new Congress will have the courage to change course.
• 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.