Congress runs away from duty

Aug. 07, 2014 @ 08:50 AM

This editorial appeared in The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk

Once again, Congress has stalled on reforming the immigration system or even addressing the child-migrant crisis at the border. It left judicial nominees in limbo. It failed to come up with a plan to upgrade roads, bridges and transit systems. It didn't even bother helping with the wildfires razing parts of the West.

What did Congress do before recessing for a five-week vacation? It agreed to a long-overdue $16 billion plan to overhaul the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs, a welcome start to getting thousands of veterans the care they've been denied. And it approved $225 million in emergency aid to Israel to defend itself from rockets launched from Gaza.

That's about it.

Only 142 public bills have become law so far this session, the least-productive in at least 67 years. And though some complain that the House passed plenty of bills -- such as a resolution to sue the president -- few were likely to find traction in the Senate.

The system requires both houses to agree before bills can become law. It demands compromise. The partisan acrimony in Washington -- from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other -- makes that more difficult now than at any other time in modern memory.

Still, for tackling the complicated issues of the 21st century, members of Congress enjoy rich benefits: a $174,000 salary, slated to increase by $2,800 in January; an average office allowance of $1.3 million (House) or $3.2 million (Senate); and health care under the Affordable Care Act. That's in addition to months of recess, vacation and holidays each year.

Members sound especially ridiculous complaining, as some have, that the law requires them to recess for the month of August.

The Senate's website explains it this way: "In 1970, finally facing the reality of year-long sessions, Congress mandated a summer break as part of the Legislative Reorganization Act. Today, the August recess continues to be a regular feature of the Senate schedule, a chance for senators to spend time with family, meet with constituents in their home states, and catch up on summer reading."

Forty-four years ago, the only way to communicate with constituents was by letter, phone or face to face. Now, technology provides myriad ways to stay in touch, including town halls by teleconference.

Congress passed the August recess law; Congress should rewrite it. Rather than encouraging members to flit around their states, raising money and campaigning, the law should require elected leaders to remain at the Capitol until they've reached agreement on the most important issues this country faces.

They haven't done their jobs. They haven't earned the generous benefits taxpayers provide. Shame and duty should bring them back this month to deliberate, compromise and vote on a host of critical issues. America shouldn't have to wait until after the November elections to see progress.