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Austin-Hillery: Congress Should Make Efforts Toward Cooperation

After months of partisan gridlock, the Senate voted 96-3 to pass the STOCK Act, which would prohibit Members from trading on insider information — a bill that President Barack Obama vowed to sign into law.

The House is set to consider the measure this week.

Unfortunately, while these votes offer a glimmer of hope, they are not likely to signal the dawn of a new working relationship in Congress and with the president.

But they should.

At the very end of Obama’s State of the Union address, he reminded us that no matter how we may choose to divide ourselves along racial, class, gender or party lines, our greatness as a nation stems from our ability to “work together as a team” and to “get each others’ backs.” We seem to have lost sight of that simple truth. The best example of this is the devolving relationship between Democrats and Republicans in Congress and Republican Members and the president.

The Congress and the presidency exist to get the people’s business done. But the people’s business is not getting done. The Washington Times recently reported that, during its first session, the 112th Congress passed only 80 bills, “fewer than any other session since year-end records began being kept in 1947.” The report noted that this Congress “set a record for legislative futility by accomplishing less in 2011 than any other year in history.” And daily polls tell us that the American people believe the president is also failing to get much done.

Both parties, and the president, bear some share of the blame for this state of affairs, but not equally so. For his part, Obama has often failed to move quickly on key issues. For example, the administration recently announced that the president’s annual budget would be late for the third time in his term, and he has been criticized for taking an inordinate amount of time to submit many of his nominees to the Senate.

While the president has often moved too slowly, Congress has often failed to move at all. Last summer, when the nation was fast approaching the limit of its borrowing ability, Congressional Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling unless it was accompanied by deficit reduction, taking the nation to the very brink of default before a deal was reached.

Senate Democrats have failed to produce a budget resolution for more than 1,000 days.

In addition, Congress’ failure to act on the president’s federal judicial nominations has left one out of every nine federal judgeships vacant, precipitating what the Washington Post termed a vacancy “crisis.” Congress has also failed to act on the president’s nominations to leadership positions at key agencies, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, forcing him to fill those positions through recess appointments that have left him open to criticism.

Obama has made more efforts to compromise with Congressional leaders than they have made to compromise with him. In his 2011 State of the Union address, Obama proposed freezing federal spending at then-current levels for five years, albeit at record-high levels.

And in spite of their insistence that the budget deficit is the nation’s most pressing problem, Congressional Republicans have adamantly refused to consider increasing taxes on the highest earners, a proposal that polls indicate even a majority of those who identify themselves as Republicans support.

Compromise lubricates the gears of American government, but a willingness to compromise is sorely lacking in Washington today. No matter what the president proposes, the response of some in Congress is the same — intransigent resistance.

As if to underscore this point, some Congressional Republicans have now announced their intention to block even more of the president’s nominees in response to his recent recess appointments. But as the president noted in his Jan. 28 radio address: “This isn’t about me. We weren’t sent here to wage perpetual political campaigns against each other. We were sent here to serve the American people. And they deserve better than gridlock and games.”

Late last month, Congress honored departing Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). Her former colleagues should take note of what she said in the video message she posted to announce her resignation. “I have more work to do on my recovery. So, to do what is best for Arizona, I will step down.” With that statement, Giffords recognized what so many Members of Congress can’t seem to — that their job is to put serving the people above ego, self-interest and narrow partisanship.

Our political leaders would do well to remind themselves of what Giffords clearly remembered — that Congress and the presidency exist to do the people’s business, period. That recognition would go a long way toward doing exactly what the president admonished us all to do to help move this country forward — to “work together as a team” and to “get each others’ backs.”

Nicole Austin-Hillery is director and counsel of the Washington office of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.

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