Congress’ inability to govern creates great risks

Most members of Congress were probably high achievers in school. But, as a group, they have a serious deadline problem. Congress’ inability to get things done — and done on time — is creating grave risks for the country.

The nation teetered on the brink of default in early August because Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on whether to raise the debt ceiling. At the last minute, they brokered a deal — but one that largely postponed the problem.

Just eight weeks later, Washington’s procrastinating again. The Senate last week approved a stopgap spending bill that would keep the government open until mid-November. For a while, it looked as though even that wouldn’t get done because of a battle over how to fund federal disaster relief.

This week, the House must consider that same bill. This newspaper strongly urges North Texas’ representatives to approve it and not waste any more time.

Even in normal times, Congress has a hard time meeting deadlines. The nonpartisan No Labels group released a report last week showing that only twice in the last 25 years has Capitol Hill passed all its yearly spending bills on time.

But these aren’t normal times. The failure to govern carries greater risks now. As the folks at No Labels put it, “Missed deadlines and petty arguments are unacceptable for elected officials tasked with pulling our nation out of an economic crisis.”

We have a $14 trillion debt, a stalled economy and vanishing consumer confidence. And what is Washington doing? Arguing over how to pay for disaster relief and postponing spending bills.

The stakes are high for Congress in November. Not only must lawmakers finalize those appropriation bills for 2012, but the debt supercommittee must approve an additional $1.5 trillion in savings by Nov. 23. If the bipartisan group, created in August as part of the debt ceiling compromise, can’t come to agreement, automatic cuts will be triggered across parts of the government.

Like all Americans, we expect robust debates. But leaders must do more than preen off talking points. They need to govern.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served eight presidents over five decades, reminded an audience at the SMU Tate Lecture series last week how the nation once solved problems. We won the Cold War and met many other challenges because our leaders governed from the center. The extremes expressed themselves freely, but those in charge charted a middle ground that reflected fundamental American values.

That’s not so today, which is why both parties need to put aside their absolutist tendencies and urgently search for common ground. Kicking problems down the road only harms America.

AT THE BRINK

The U.S. government has been brought to the edge of a shutdown three times this year:

April: Instead of approving funding for fiscal 2011 by Oct. 1, 2010, Congress waited until April 2011. (President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner reached a deal 90 minutes before the deadline, which would have triggered a government shutdown.)

August: After months of wrangling over the debt ceiling, Congress fought until the last moment before authorizing the Treasury to borrow more money. (A deal was brokered just hours before the deadline.)

September: Congress failed to approve spending bills for the Oct. 1 start of fiscal 2012. Instead, the Senate approved a stopgap measure, which the House must pass this week, to keep the government open until Nov. 18.

Up next: In November, Congress must approve spending bills for the 2012 fiscal year, as well as come up with $1.5 trillion in debt savings.

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