Congress’s Ill-Timed Recess

Thursday, March 3, 2011

By leaving town for vacation in the midst of its momentous debate on funding the federal government, Congress abdicated its responsibilities. Former Congressman Lee Hamilton explains why people should be upset about “Congress’s Ill-Timed Recess."

I sure hope the members of Congress who returned to work this week enjoyed themselves while they were out of town.  Because out in the rest of the country, their weeklong Presidents’ Day recess certainly left a lot of people feeling jittery.

The continuing resolution that has kept the federal government operating since last year expires on March 4; a last-minute agreement between House Republicans and Senate Democrats will now keep it operating for two more weeks. Both Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress have vowed that they understand the seriousness of a government shutdown and have no intention of letting this happen.  But that’s not the message they sent by leaving Washington with millions of people’s plans and futures hanging in the balance.

Here’s why you should be upset.  At the moment, the nation is in the midst of an intense debate about its fiscal future.  Momentous decisions are due, including whether or not to raise the federal debt ceiling, how much and where to cut the federal budget, and how to deal with such prime contributors to the federal deficit as Medicare, Medicaid, and defense spending.  All of this makes the near future extraordinarily uncertain.  Federal agencies, contractors, public workers, retirees, social-service agencies, state and local governments—there’s an endless list of people and organizations unable to make plans until these issues are resolved.

Yet Congress went on vacation anyway, while hundreds of federal agencies, the many thousands of workers who staff them, and the untold number of businesses and ordinary Americans who depend on their activities were left to cool their heels.  Federal workers prepared for layoffs, private contractors confronted the possibility of no income, veterans wondered whether they’d be seeing benefits checks, cities and states—already under immense fiscal pressure—eyed the possibility of running out of cash to pay for programs normally funded by Washington.

The leadership of both houses will protest that while their members were back home politicking and taking the temperature of their constituencies, several key members and their staffs were working toward a resolution—and that by striking a deal for an extra two weeks’ grace period, they found one.  But that’s not the issue. The problem is that by leaving town, Congress gave many people the impression that it is willing to treat Americans’ livelihoods and wellbeing lightly.  If Congress were serious, it would have remained in session to wrestle with the gut-wrenching decisions it has to make about what kind of government it wants to see, so that millions of Americans can look ahead to the next few months with some measure of certainty.

Congressional recesses are built into the schedule for a reason: they allow members of Congress to plan ahead.  But when Congress is hellbent on keeping to that schedule even when it means robbing the rest of the country of its own ability to plan ahead, that’s not an acceptable or  responsible way for Congress to carry out its central duty.