Can Congress Legislate for the Future?

Sarah A. Binder

Observing the summer rush to pass bills deemed important for legislators facing tough re-election battles, a Capitol Hill reporter summed up the season as “Legislating for November.” Given legislators’ incentives to take credit and to avoid blame, the question naturally arises: Can Congress legislate for the longer-term? Do legislators have the necessary incentives, capacity, and institutions for addressing long-range policy issues—problems like Social Security, global climate change, health care financing, and defense restructuring? I argue that congressional pathologies limit Congress’s ability to legislate for the future, pathologies exacerbated today by partisan polarization and competition.

Why is Congress prone to ignore problems with long-term consequences, and why might that tendency be worse today than before? To answer these questions, I explore first why Congress finds it challenging to solve problems, regardless of the temporal nature of the problem. Electoral incentives and organizational arrangements conspire to make it tough for members of Congress to resolve difficult public problems. Legislating for the future inherits all of the stickiness of the legislative process, and then is further vexed by the difficulty of reaching compromise on policy problems whose effects will not be felt for decades—even as the political fallout occurs immediately. Congress may have the analytic capacity to inform itself about adverse long-term policy consequences, but it often lacks the political will to do much about them.