Changes needed for long-term recovery of Congress

It shows how low the bar has been set for Congress that the simple act of re-opening the federal government and averting a default on our nation’s financial obligations is considered, in some corners, a success.

While we should all be glad this unnecessary and reckless episode has ended, a cessation of lunacy should be expected – not celebrated.

Wednesday’s actions mean the patient made it out of surgery, but we’re still really unhealthy. Congress must move forward on long-term recovery. That will mean a few changes.

First, Congress must pass a budget that addresses our nation’s long-term fiscal health.

Late last year, I attended freshman orientation, an opportunity for new representatives to learn the rules and procedures of Congress.

One presentation stood out: the budget seminar.

The presenter started by explaining how the process is supposed to work. It was like something out of your civics class: The House and Senate each pass budgets, then go to conference committee to reach a compromise.

The presenter confessed, “But that hasn’t happened in years.”

Instead, he explained, we’ve seen a series of self-imposed crises. Short-term spending packages that continue the prior year’s spending decisions – regardless of whether they make strategic sense. Across-the-board cuts that damage our community, our military readiness and the interests of taxpayers. Disruptive fiscal showdowns that fracture the trust and predictability that employers need from government.

Sound familiar?

The past few weeks, as our nation experienced a damaging government shutdown and the threat of default, we saw once again the upshot of continuing to kick the can down the road.

It’s time to pass a budget.

Wednesday’s agreement finally puts in place a conference committee to negotiate a budget. Done right, this provides some critical opportunities:

 • To deal with a growing debt that threatens our long-term security.

 • To replace sequestration with more strategic spending reforms that improve efficiency and reduce future cost growth.

 • To move forward with comprehensive, pro-growth tax reform that protects the middle class.

 • To strengthen our financial recovery by investing in education and infrastructure that enhance our national competitiveness.

 • To protect the most vulnerable Americans, ensuring critical safety net programs are solvent for future generations.

But it will take more than that to ensure Congress never puts our country through this turmoil again.

Maybe Congress needs an incentive to do its job. That’s why one of my first actions in Congress was to support a plan that forces Congress to live by a simple principle: If its members don’t pass a budget, they shouldn’t get paid. I’ve never had a job – not since I was a teenager working at Westside Video in Port Angeles – where I got paid if the work didn’t get done. Congress shouldn’t be any different.

Perhaps the most important change we need is for Congress to focus more on progress than on partisanship – to restore a seriously fractured public trust.

We’re in trouble if its members define success as making the other party look bad. And we’re in trouble if we’re incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time. We can work to reduce our debt and commit to paying our bills to avoid a default. We can work to fix concerns with the Affordable Care Act – to make it more workable for families and small businesses – and avoid shutting down the government. We can accept common sense ideas from the other side of the aisle even if they reduce political leverage.

Of course it’s unrealistic to expect the toxic culture in Washington, D.C., to change overnight, but there are some glimmers of hope.

For example, every Wednesday morning I participate in a meeting of the Bipartisan Working Group in which a couple of dozen members of Congress from both sides of the aisle check their snarky talking points at the door and discuss what we can work on to move our country forward.

It’s only about 20 people right now. I wish it were 200. But it’s a start.

Congress must earn back the trust of the American people by creating jobs instead of crises. We must get this economy – and Congress – working again.

Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, represents the 6th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.