In the aftermath of the upheaval on Capitol Hill caused by the recent elections, the president and congressional Republicans laid out their various priorities for the coming two years: immigration reform, alterations to Obamacare, lifting environmental regulations, a Pacific trade deal and revisions to the tax code. No doubt this list is likely to expand in the coming weeks, as more D.C. insiders try putting their favorite issues on the political radar.
While movement on any of these would be nothing short of a miracle, perhaps our leaders in Washington should set their sights a little lower — actually, a lot lower. It’s been often said, “the key to happiness is low expectations,” and this has never been truer than in our current political climate.
Congressional leaders have, in recent years, chosen to prioritize grandstanding and pandering to the political base over substantive lawmaking and real governance. For years now, Congress has experienced tremendous difficulty simply fulfilling its responsibilities of renewing and updating existing federal programs and agencies. Most of these are non-controversial and assist millions of Americans with nutrition programs for the elderly, AIDS education centers, studies of harmful substances in drinking water and loan subsidies for small businesses, to name a few. The statutes authorizing the existence and funding for these and thousands of more programs buttressing government’s most basic responsibilities have gone un-renewed — and therefore without much-needed updates — for years, sometimes decades.
While these are not the juicy bits of policymaking that grab headlines for weeks on end, they do underpin the basic duties of government, renew and improve widely appealing and needed federal programs and, most importantly, establish working relationships that can be used as a launching pad for more ambitious policy changes.
For example, Head Start, the federal program that provides preschool education for children in poverty, was last reauthorized in 2007, when President George W. Bush signed its renewal. That update to Head Start passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate. That authorization expired more than two years ago. The program still exists and its funding is maintained through the appropriations process. But without a proper reauthorization, much needed changes such as expansion of the very successful Early Head Start program for infants, toddlers and pregnant mothers cannot occur.
If Republicans are looking for a subject more to their liking, Community Development Block Grants are meant to provide funding for locally based housing and jobs programs and have long been a target for GOP reforms. This Ford-era creation has gone unauthorized for the better part of two decades and an updating enactment would allow Congress to adjust its allocation formulas and implement new performance reviews. But over the years, lawmakers have only been capable of adjusting appropriations levels for programs badly in need of reorganization. Most importantly, President Barack Obama has signaled an interest in making changes to CDBG programs, so this is a ripe opportunity for compromise that would work to everyone’s benefit.
Take your pick. There are hundreds of programs and agencies that sorely need updates and reforms — reforms that would be supported by key stakeholders and are likely to garner support from both sides of the aisle. For decades, renewing such programs was the meat-and-potatoes of congressional activity. Now only the most visible and urgent of expiring programs and laws — the farm bill or defense reauthorization — are the one’s getting the congressional machinery in motion. The rest linger in limbo with lawmakers yet to take up their reauthorization.
It is not enough that Congress simply lurches from funding crisis to funding crisis while the most basic elements of governance are left unattended. If Republican leaders seek to demonstrate their governing chops rather than their skills at empty grandstanding, they should bite off some of these smaller pieces of lawmaking and reauthorize our government.
E. Scott Adler is professor and associate chairman of political science at the University of Colorado Boulder. John Wilkerson is professor of political science and director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy at the University of Washington. They’re the authors of “Congress and the Politics of Problem Solving.”