As we consider the ramifications of Sen. Scott Brown’s (R) victory in the Massachusetts Senate race, it is important to remember that Brown’s win — and the legislative tensions in the Senate that are likely to follow — mask a larger problem on Capitol Hill: Congress no longer knows how to govern.
A fundamental part of governing in the modern era is the reauthorization of existing federal programs and agencies. The idea behind reauthorizations is simple; Congress sets a time when the funding, and often the enabling legislation, for a program will expire. When this time comes, Congress is meant to review a program or agency’s performance and make modifications to improve its effectiveness. A new law is then passed — the reauthorization — that legislates adjustments to the program or agency’s function, based on input from interest groups, agency personnel, constituents and others.
The result is legislation that makes government programs work better and federal agencies more responsive. Congress began doing this after World War II, and the practice continued and expanded through the 1980s.
Since 1985, the Congressional Budget Office annually issues a report listing programs that have not had their funding reauthorized. That report has shown that, over the past two decades, Congress has increasingly abdicated its basic governing responsibilities. Consider the following numbers: In 1993, there were 59 programs operating with an expired authorization. Today, there are 250.
Lawmakers no longer hold many hearings or do the basic work of legislating. Like corporate boards that have not done their due diligence and subsequently find their business sinking, Congress is not tending to the normal upkeep and maintenance of government. Members have turned a blind eye, even as major governmental failures occur around us.
Should we be surprised that the Securities and Exchange Commission didn’t catch Bernie Madoff and other Wall Street shenanigans when SEC operations haven’t been reviewed since 2002? Or that intelligence agencies failed to connect the dots on the latest airplane bomb plot given that there are dozens of programs related to homeland security and anti-terrorism effort — including a program to study the travel patterns of terrorists — that have not been reviewed by the relevant Congressional committees? Or should we feel safe from biological attacks in the future, given that Congress did not review bioterrorism programs when their authorizations expired in 2006?
Even more problematic is that Congress cannot reauthorize programs that should not be controversial, like school lunch programs, AIDS funding, work force services, children’s health research, crime prevention programs aimed at sex offenders and child predators, and Community Development Block Grants. The Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, NASA, the Coast Guard and the State Department all are in the boat of having expired authorizations. The basic functions of government go untended in the current political landscape.
Effectively, by not reauthorizing or — as is increasingly the case — appropriating, Congress is leaving to the administration and the agencies themselves the responsibility for their own future. Nowadays, any legislative direction agencies receive is through riders attached to omnibus bills.
Congress cannot govern in part because there are few lawmakers left who know how to legislate. There are fewer than 100 Members of Congress who have experience working in a Congress where there were regular efforts to legislate and renew programs. Ironically, it was during the last serious debate over health care, in 1993 and 1994, that the number of unauthorized programs exploded.
Sure, Congress manages to get some work done, but much of the day-to-day process of running the government is deferred while its Members instead spend their time scoring partisan political points and raising money for their own re-elections.
As Richard Fenno, one of the great political scientists of the 20th century, has noted, Members of Congress have to learn to govern. They have to learn how to take the lessons from the campaign trail and the sentiments of voters and translate them into more effective and responsive government. Since 1995, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, particularly their leaders, have abdicated their governing role and now spend all their time girding for the next re-election battle.
Lawmakers today understand the partisan fight, but the act of actually governing requires doing things that are not merely designed to score political points. Instead of governing, we get financial meltdowns, near-miss terrorist attacks, and the potential for many more failures of government responsibility. While Democrats and Republicans play petty politics, America awaits competent governing.
Thad Hall is associate professor of political science at the University of Utah. He is the author of “Authorizing Policy.” E. Scott Adler is associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of “Why Congressional Reforms Fail: Reelection and the House Committee System.”