Can Congress work more like state government?
The gridlock in Congress is something of tremendous frustration to many of us as we watch endless debates and committee hearings with little, if any, real progress on the key issues facing our country. As a testament to the futility of this institution, in 2013 Congress only enacted 72 new laws, many of which were measures with limited impact or benefit. More legislation is not always better, but with serious problems related to our looming national debt, infrastructure funding, immigration, the financial viability of Social Security and Medicare, the current Congress has “kicked the can down the road.”
The lack of progress by Congress is not lost on the public, where recent polls reflect voter confidence at historic lows.
In contrast, in Colorado 420 measures were passed in 2014, with 90 percent of those bills having bipartisan support. While a number of those bills were minor measures, Colorado legislators worked together to pass a number of bills of real consequence. This included funds to assist communities and victims of last year’s wildfires and floods, measures to increase access to high-speed Internet and strengthen the existing telecommunications infrastructure, funding for the state to contract for aircraft to fight wildfires, a business personal property tax credit for businesses with $15,000 or less of equipment, a legal framework for transportation network companies and tax incentives for alternative fuel vehicles.
While there is a lot of blame to go around, the problem in Congress is not due to one party, nor can it be assigned to one major partisan group or even for that matter to those behind-the-scenes players such as George Soros or the Koch brothers.
The real question is how is it that many of the same people (over 50 percent) who have served in state legislatures, which are much more effective and held in higher esteem by voters, move up to Congress, and are unable to accomplish much. What happens in the transition where these individuals appear capable of working with their counterparts from the opposing parties to solve key concerns at a state level but fail to be able to accomplish the same at the national level?
While state governments do not need to contend with foreign policy or national defense, many of them address some of the same problems as Congress such as transportation, health care, education, public safety, the environment and many more. The difference is that state governments, such as ours, get things done.
The real key appears to be that state lawmakers can get beyond the partisan politics that exist in Washington at this time. They appear willing to listen to their counterparts from the opposing party and are more willing to compromise. They get to know their fellow legislators on a personal basis and better understand the person and their issues. This greater understanding leads to mutual respect and a higher likelihood of working together.
Another key to the success in state legislatures lies in the fact that state lawmakers are closer to their communities and citizens. Our state legislators are not insulated from their constituents by a cadre of staff people who handle constituent calls and letters. Many of them answer their own phone, maintain their own schedules and personally meet with constituents. This gives them firsthand knowledge of situations that may be lost in translation when it is conveyed by a memo from a staff person. Finally, rather than being in Washington, they are in their communities daily and personally witness the challenges faced by the voters. At the same time, they regularly interact with their constituents in local stores and businesses, which allows them to better understand the public’s concerns. In many cases, citizens in these communities recognize and know their state legislator but may not even be aware of the lawmaker’s political party.
Can we get Congress to work more like state government? Maybe, but it will take changes. One change would be to reduce the amount of time that Congress is in session annually, allowing representatives to spend more time in their home districts.
While many would contend that this is not possible, the record reflects much greater success for states that spend much less time in session than Congress. Clearly, more time has not bred better outcomes. Second, we need to tone down the partisan politics on both sides. The passage of every measure should not be viewed as a win-lose proposition for each party. Good public policy is not specifically reserved for one party or another. Third, new leadership is needed. The current leadership in both houses for both parties in Congress has been at loggerheads for the last several years. Maybe new blood and a fresh approach by those who have not been a part of that leadership and the bitter partisan battles should be given the opportunity to lead. Hopefully, both sides could choose those people who have shown a proven ability to work with their counterparts from the other party. Finally, both parties in Congress need to understand that compromise is not a dirty word. Some give and take is critical is making the process work and it successfully occurs every year in our own state legislature and others. Compromise and bipartisanship even occurred at one time in Washington; hopefully we can get back to it.
Greg Fulton is president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, which includes more than 600 companies involved in the trucking industry in Colorado.
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