Congress is winding down its historically unproductive session with a small flurry of activity. It's a welcome change, but so long overdue that it can't possibly make up for what should have been accomplished on Capitol Hill this year.
The problem is that for too long, members of Congress have been working hard at everything except the one thing they should have been working hard at: legislating. They've been so unproductive that they've actually threatened our world standing and our domestic well-being.
To be sure, they are moving incrementally. Gridlock is breached, but not broken. The likelihood is that Congress will pass a defense bill. It reached a small-scale budget agreement that undoes a bit of the damage caused by the sequester. It is finally starting to work through a list as long as your arm of judicial and executive-branch confirmations, but only because Senate Democrats decided they had to change the rules if they wanted to fill long-unfilled government appointments.
Yet the list of what Congress hasn't done is sobering. There's no food-stamp reauthorization or waterways construction bill. It passed a one-month extension to the farm bill, but that falls far short of the certainty this crucial economic sector needs. There's no lasting solution to the debt ceiling problem. Almost nothing has been done about the fundamental gap between taxes and spending. It has left unemployment benefits unresolved, immigration reform unresolved, tax reform unresolved, and action on climate change unresolved. This lack of productivity makes me wonder if Congress can address truly hard challenges without a crisis before it.
Mind you, some legislators take pride in how unproductive Congress has been. They argue that the less the government does, the better. But given Congress's pathetically low standing in the polls, it's clear that most Americans don't agree. They don't like incompetence, as their response to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act suggests, and they really don't like people who dodge their responsibilities, which is what Congress's ineffectiveness amounts to.
Unlike many members of Congress, Americans seem to understand that things that ought to be done are not getting done, and that there are real costs to inaction. We're in a competitive race with China for world leadership, and whether we like it or not, others around the globe are comparing our two governments. The attractiveness of the American model is under challenge, and our political dysfunction is a serious handicap. As The Wall Street Journal put it recently, a superpower that isn't sure it can fund its government or pay its bills is not in a position to lead.
And because problems aren't getting addressed, others are stepping into the breach at home, too -- but with less transparency, less accountability, and less flexibility. The Fed is doing the heavy lifting on the economy. The Supreme Court is essentially legislating. Executive branch agencies are trying to handle massively difficult challenges through executive orders. State and local governments have decided that even on issues they can't truly address effectively, like immigration, they're on their own.
When asked about all this, congressional leaders tend to blame the other house, arguing that they've done their best but the other side has bottled up their efforts. All I can say is, finger-pointing is not an excuse, it's an admission of failure. A leader's responsibility is to enact legislation, not just get a bill through the house of Congress he or she controls.
Legislating is tough, demanding work. It requires many hours of conversation about differences, commonalities, and possible solutions. It demands patience, mutual respect, persistence, collegiality, compromise, artful negotiation, and creative leadership. Especially when Congress is so divided.
Yet when Congress meets only episodically throughout the year, when it often works just three days a week and plans an even more relaxed schedule in 2014, when the House and Senate give themselves just one overlapping week this month to resolve huge questions of public policy, you can only come to one conclusion: They're not really willing to work hard at legislating. A last-minute flurry of bills offers hope, but it's going to take a lot more work to convince the country that Congress knows how to live up to its responsibilities.
•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.