Column: Beltway mentality hinders good government

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While the affliction cannot be found in any medical journal, the malady known as “beltway mentality” has a way of infecting many otherwise well-meaning legislators. Symptoms can include a swollen sense of self-importance and a loss of connection with the constituency, and the most common cause of the illness stems from isolating one’s self from those you represent. Unfortunately, beltway mentality has reached an epidemic level in our nation’s capital.

There exists an elitist attitude in many corners in Washington that the only important work done by members is performed within the beltway, and that more time spent in Washington somehow translates to working harder. This is nonsense. Inherently important in representing a district is the need to be in the district and among your constituents enough to understand their concerns and issues. Unfortunately, the beltway mentality is in part responsible for making the 110th Congress the most unproductive session in decades.

In December of last year, the new House majority leadership boasted to America that it would work harder by keeping Congress in session five days a week. They began by scheduling relatively meaningless votes for Monday evenings, on issues such as “recognizing over 200 years of sovereignty of the Principality of Liechtenstein,” a bill recognizing Dutch-American Friendship Day, and one congratulating the University of Louisville for its Orange Bowl Victory. While every past Congress has passed its fair share of laudatory and symbolic resolutions, it did so during the course of the week and without pulling members back to Washington on Mondays in an attempt to appear busy.

Nearly a year after this declaration, it seems to be an appropriate time to assess the fruits of this labor. A total of 107 bills have become law thus far in the 110th Congress. Of those, 47 renamed a post office, federal building, recreation area, courthouse, or highway; 44 bills were completely non-controversial measures or passed with overwhelming Republican support; and 14 bills simply extended pre-existing public laws. The 110th Congress is on pace to enact fewer laws than any one in more than three decades, dating back to the Nixon Administration.

Under its new congressional schedule, House leadership has not fostered in an era of unprecedented legislative productivity; rather, it has kept members in Washington longer, with no additional issues to consider, and insulated representatives from the people who elect them. More time within the beltway is an obstacle, not a facilitator, to good government. Accessibility is a key ingredient to accountability in government, and I am never more accountable to my constituents for my actions in Washington than when I am back in central Ohio, running into them at the grocery story or at church, or meeting with them in my district office.

More importantly, the lack of productivity is impacting the functioning of government.While the new majority has proven most adept at renaming federal properties, when it comes to important issues that Americans care about, the Congress is unable to produce. To date, Congress has been unable to come to an agreement with the White House to extend the children’s health insurance program, a critically important health program serving low-income children. The program expires in less than two weeks.

House leaders were also forced to pull legislation extending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—one of our most important tools against terrorist plots—after it was noted that their bill would have required intelligence officers to consult government lawyers before wiretapping Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda or other terror groups.

For the first time since 1987, amid its “five-day work weeks” no less, Congress has not sent a single appropriations bill to the president’s desk by Nov. 1, a month into the new fiscal year. These are the bills that fund our government departments and agencies, and keep the federal system operational. Among the most glaring of their appropriations neglect is their failure to pass a bill providing $4.4 billion in new veterans spending, funding housing and health care for our troops, veterans, and their families.

The American people deserve representation that produces results, not one that simply logs unnecessary hours in Washington to rename federal properties. The new leadership in Congress should embrace a philosophy that has been utilized by the private sector for decades: work smarter.

Congresswoman Deborah Pryce

(R- Columbus)

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