- - Friday, March 6, 2015


Congress is having a tough time doing the big stuff. Immigration reform hasn’t gone anywhere. A free-trade treaty has been delayed. Every effort to alter the health care law has been rebuffed.

Maybe Congress should start thinking small.

Its largest headaches have come when it’s tried to move big legislation, especially must-pass bills. Stalemate over rolling back President Obama’s executive action on immigration nearly shut down the Department of Homeland Security.

Maybe lawmakers are out of practice. The previous Congress that ended last year – the 113th – notoriously produced record levels of inactivity. Members of Congress may have simply forgotten how to write and pass real laws. Certainly they’re rusty.

So it makes sense for them to relearn by taking baby steps. At least those efforts, if unsuccessful, won’t shutter the entire federal government or major parts of it.

One option is to jump on the beginner’s slope of legislation: earmarks.

That’s a bad word in some quarters, but it’s also a fundamental building block of legislation. If one lawmaker needs a bridge or a highway, that’s a small price to pay to win an entire highway bill that will help restore the nation’s infrastructure.
High school civics books call trading narrow benefits like these logrolling.The term isn’t used as an epithet. It’s a matter-of-fact explanation of how things get done on Capitol Hill among lawmakers who otherwise disagree with each other.

Such cooperation has been given a bad name lately by the increasingly polarized partisans in Congress. Ideologues were once a tiny minority in the House and Senate. Now they comprise sizable, obstructive voting blocs on both sides of the aisle that make getting anything accomplished a chore.

The hard right also believes that providing direct government assistance to constituents is blasphemy. But that’s misguided. Stubbornness like that needs to be softened with a dose of self-interest, the motivation that used to be catnip for politicians eager to be reelected.

Constituent service should be revived as a worthy goal and, eventually, as a primary focus for lawmakers. Earmarking a few dozen dredged waterways and overpasses is a good way to start a movement in that direction.

Another way to re-teach lawmakers how to make laws is to find a few small items of consensus and pass them. Consensus is not a dirty word, though it has fallen into disrepute. To contemporary ears, it implies caving in on principle or, worse, agreeing to a compromise.

Compromise is also a word that today’s lawmakers try to avoid, but it was once the proud purpose of true legislators. It should be that way again, but to get there, members of Congress have to start slow.

How about passing laws that protect agreed-to items in Obamacare? Lawmakers might re-codify protections against denying health coverage to those with preexisting conditions, for example.

Lawmakers could also link arms in non-legislative ways just to remind themselves that they have common interests. Members from opposing parties could team up to do town hall meetings. They could volunteer together to serve food at homeless shelters or to make joint speeches to veterans’ organizations back home.

They could also eat together every once in a while. Breaking bread with someone is a good way to prevent hatred from festering. A nonprofit foundation could be created to pay for these breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

If lawmakers began to know and even respect each other regardless of party affiliation and also found ways to pass legislation together, even minor bills, the Congress would become a less dysfunctional place.

Some lawmakers think Congress shouldn’t function well. But they’re in the wrong job.

Jeffrey Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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