Congress needs to stay in town to get the job done

During his press conference last Wednesday, in a moment of unvarnished exasperation, President Obama criticized Congress for what he regarded as its lackadaisical and dilatory work habits. Invoking the looming debt ceiling crisis, he said, “We’ve got to get this done. And if by the end of this week, we have not seen substantial progress, then I think members of Congress need to understand we are going to have to start to cancel things and stay here until we get it done.”

Whether he knew it or not, the president was channeling the views of the American people. In a survey recently conducted by No Labels, a national citizens’ movement of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, 83 percent of the respondents thought that Congress should stay in session if it fails to address the fiscal crisis before its scheduled summer breaks.

The Senate seems to have gotten the message. On Thursday morning, it announced that it would cut short its Independence Day recess, return to Washington after July 4, and stay in session until the debt ceiling crisis is resolved.

The House has been slower to respond. Its members returned this week from an 11-day break, with another coming in mid-July. Amazingly, the House has only twelve work days on its calendar between now and August 2, and Speaker Boehner has given no indication that he plans to change the schedule.

He should, because we’re playing with fire. As the president rightly said, if we fail to reach an agreement to raise the debt ceiling and the U.S. government cannot meet its obligations, the consequences for the economy would be “significant and unpredictable.”

The people know that the stakes are high. In a survey released by No Labels, 92 percent of respondents are worried that the fiscal crisis will affect their personal finances, and 68 percent fear that it could reduce their job security. No wonder 91 percent say it’s important for our leaders to come together and find a solution right away.

The people have clear views about how to get the job done. 56 percent think that a compromise between the two sides would be best. By contrast, only 17 percent think that congressional Republicans have the best solution, and even fewer — 12 percent — favor the approach of the congressional Democrats.

The people’s message is clear: get to work, approach the job in a spirit of compromise… and don’t stop until you’ve reached a solution. During the next few weeks, we’ll find out whether our elected officials have as much common sense as the people they claim to represent.

William A. Galston is a founding leader of No Labels and a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

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