Seen from a West Coast vantage point about 6,000 miles away, the U.S. Congress looks broken and dysfunctional. Mired in ideological muckraking and paralyzed to inaction by too many lines drawn in the sand, our federal lawmakers appear to march like zombies from one self-inflicted crisis to another.
But is that just a stereotype formed by residents of a decidedly Democratic county in a traditionally blue state? Have we been watching too much CNN and not enough Fox News?
The answer is both yes and no, Rep. Denny Heck told The Olympian editorial board this week.
Heck is a first-time Democrat congressman from the newly formed 10th Congressional District. He’s one of 80 freshman representatives in the 113th U.S. Congress who have served only since Jan. 3.
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But it’s been long enough for Heck to understand why Washingtonians have reason to be both concerned and optimistic about their federal government.
Heck sees the U.S. House deadlock on budget issues as the source of congressional dysfunction. So much political posturing occurs around tax increases, spending cuts and whether the budget should include some of each, that it “sucks all the oxygen out of the room.”
Heck laments the wasted effort on budget grandstanding because “it leaves no oxygen” for progress on other issues. It also has a dampening effect on economic growth.
From this side of the continent, Congress appears trapped in a periodic crisis mode, stumbling from the fiscal cliff to sequestration to yet another debt limit fight coming in May. It will reach a feverish pitch over the 2014 budget in September, when hard-line conservatives will try to bake in the widely criticized across-the-board cuts from sequestration.
Heck represented the 10th district well by voting three times against implementing the bad economic policy of sequestration, even though he believes the nation’s long-term debt problem will ultimately hold us back.
He’s right, of course. Our debt must eventually be stabilized to the Gross Domestic Product. In the short-term, however, mindless spending cuts risk throwing the country back into recession.
Heck’s perspective validates the image South Sounders have of Congress, but it only applies on the big issues where ideological walls stand rigid.
On the granular level, he sees representatives working across the aisle productively. He cites the Violence Against Women Act – the first bill he co-sponsored – that passed with Republicans joining Democrats to form a majority. Similar collaborations played out on the Export/Import Bank and are now working on measures to tighten rules on reverse mortgages.
Heck is particularly optimistic the House will pass meaningful immigration reform along those same bipartisan lines. House Republicans might be inflexible on budget matters, but they are hearing from constituents on social issues, and it is having an effect on some.
We want to share Heck’s optimism about the positive energy and top caliber of his congressional classmates, that they have the collective will to transform a do-nothing Congress. Perhaps they can even turn the tide of public opinion about Congress, which is at an all-time low.
Let’s hope Heck is right because from way out here on the West Coast, it looks like the congressional ship could run aground and stay stuck in the mud for a very long time.