Congressional Recess: Good or Bad for America?

With the increasing emphasis on teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the associated testing, recess in schools is being shortened or eliminated altogether. There is a debate in the educational community whether this is good or bad for students.

In contrast, recess in the halls of Congress this summer is lengthier than usual According to the calendar, the House is scheduled to adjourn on July 15 and return on September 6 with the Senate adjourning on July 18 and returning on September 5. So, there is little debate -- at least on the hill -- on whether this is good or bad for the legislators who set this agenda for themselves.

David Hawkings of Roll Call reports this is the longest recess in "at least three decades." The recess raises a fundamental question is this increased time "out of the office" good or bad for America.

The correct answer in terms of the recess in and of itself is neither. The proper metrics for Congress should be its productivity in terms of the number of substantive pieces of legislation passed and the quality and impact of that legislation.

As we noted in a 2014 blog, the 112th and 113th congresses
have been rated the worst ever using metrics of this type. As we commented in a recent blog, the current Congress, the 114th fared much better in its first year of operations. But things have slowed to a snail's pace in this presidential election year.

So, there's nothing wrong with this recess. What is wrong is that it is an indicator, along with both presidential nominating conventions being held earlier than at any time in the past one quarter of a century, that considerably more attention will be devoted to campaigning and politicking than to policy-making and legislating.

Some might argue that's not an altogether bad thing and might even agree with humorist Will Rogers who in 1923 said, "Well, all of our Senators and Congressmen are away from Washington now. This is the season of the year when they do the least damage to our country."

Rogers offered his home-spun humor in a good natured way and in simpler times. It rings true today. But, not because of what is being done in Washington but because of what is not being done.

The sad truth is that Congress is a mirror to the nation - and there are many cracks in that mirror. Congress used to be a more centrist place where politicians from both sides of the aisle could come together and work out "deals" that were in the best interests of the country and their constituents.

That is not the Congress of today. It is a Congress where the tone and tenor of the debate is frequently controlled by the ideological extremes.

Those extremes reflect the strains of a nation divided and the cacophony that first came to the surface with the Tea Party and then with the Freedom Caucus in the House is now being thundered with crescendo force through the populist votes in the presidential primaries and the extreme dissatisfaction of the electorate in general with Congress.

Approval ratings in monthly Gallup polls over the past three years of the "way Congress is handling its job" have been around 15% with a high of 20% and a low of 9%. In the Pew Research Center polls, "positive ratings of Congress have been below 30% for more than three years." The approval ratings in both those polls in past periods were consistently much higher than this.

What has driven Congressional approval ratings over the cliff? Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in an insightful and provocative article in the July/August issue of Atlantic, attributes it to the decline and virtual disappearance of our political class and the middlemen who made things happen.

Rauch observes, "The middlemen could be undemocratic, high-handed, devious, secretive. But, they had one great virtue: They brought order out of chaos. They encouraged coordination, interdependency, and mutual accountability. They discouraged solipsistic and anti-social political behavior."

The middlemen in Congress are gone but Rauch sees some reason for optimism that there could be hope for a return to business - or should we say, Congress - as usual in the future. The biggest obstacle that he sees to that occurring "is the general public's reflexive unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics."

Rauch goes on to assert, "Populism, individualism, and skeptical attitude toward politics are all healthy up to a point, but America has passed that point. Political professionals and parties have many shortcomings to answer for - including primarily, on the Republican side, their self-mutilating embrace of anti-establishment rhetoric - but relentlessly bashing them is no solution."

We agree with Mr. Rauch. It is time to stop the bashing. It is time for a recess from that and Congressional blundering.

As Congress moves to a recess, it has failed to deal with or even have a meaningful discussion regarding the "gun violence crisis" in the United States. At this time, special interests control this debate -- or lack thereof. Perhaps, after this recess, the voice of the silent majority will be heard and a response crafted.

It is unrealistic to expect that to occur before the November election and probably during this Congress. But, it absolutely should and must happen early in the 115th Congress.

Years ago Will Rogers said, "This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.

Over the past decade or so, there have been a number of politicians elected to office who would take that hammer and use it to decimate the very institution in which they work and unwittingly damage the country in which they live.

This country needs a Congress that works. This country needs citizens who work. This country needs a Congress and citizens who can work together using that hammer to rebuild confidence through constructive compromise and collaboration.

That would be good for Congress and America too.