Just in the nick of time

Just last week, with the clock ticking toward an end-of-the-month deadline, Congress reached a deal on the payroll tax cut extension.

With more than a week to spare, the latest negotiations were a departure from the down-to-the-wire operations lawmakers have grown used to over the past several years. In December, when the Senate agreed to extend the payroll tax cut for an additional two months, House Republicans initially opposed the legislation — only to back off amid a wave of controversy. In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that same month, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) derided the temporary fix.

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“I believe that two months is just kicking the can down the road,” Boehner said. “The American people are tired of that. Frankly, I’m tired of it.”

He got that right. According to a recent Gallup poll, Congress’s approval rating is at 10 percent — an all-time low. Meanwhile, “kicking the can down the road” has become a popular euphemism for the delay that has plagued Congress on numerous pieces of legislation in the past two years. President Obama has expressed frustration with Congress’s performance: In June, when lawmakers were deadlocked while trying to reach a compromise on the debt ceiling, Obama upbraided Congress for the delay, sounding like an annoyed schoolteacher chiding his students. “There’s no point in procrastinating,” Obama told Congress. “There’s no point in putting [the decision] off.”

Clearly, things aren’t going smoothly on Capitol Hill. But is procrastination the problem? Are members of Congress no different from a bunch of lazy school kids, putting the hard stuff off until the last minute?

Joseph R. Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University and the author of “Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting it Done,” said in Congress there often exists the mentality of “It’s not us, it’s them.” This is noticeably similar to the mindset of the typical procrastinator.

“Procrastinators are great excuse-makers. It’s never their fault,” Ferrari said. “The problem is it’s chronic. It’s always never their fault … they never take ownership.”

Yet while excuses are prevalent on Capitol Hill, many argue the problem in Congress lies elsewhere.

“It’s deadlock; it’s gridlock … but I would not describe it as procrastination,” said James Thurber, a government professor at American University and a founder of the school’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “It looks like it collectively, but [Congress members are] not lazy.”

Other experts share that opinion. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie suggested that sluggishness is simply the nature of the system.

“It’s never been an easy, speedy system,” Ritchie said. “In fact, it’s only in times of crisis … that Congress acts hastily.”

Often there’s a disconnect between lawmakers and the general public, which could account for why there’s so much backlash against Congress right now.

“There are very few periods in which Congress is actually ranked high in public opinion,” Ritchie said. “In general the legislative process is not one that people on the outside usually appreciate.” He added that having two houses in Congress through which legislation has to move has naturally made the process even longer.

Not only is the system slow, there are also extreme political divides that keep the process from moving smoothly. Ritchie said today’s political climate is more polarized than it was before the 1990s.

“There are certainly periods when you have divided government that things don’t move as smoothly as they should,” he said.

It’s that polarization that Thurber said is the real cause of all the delay in Congress. Because there are so few centrists to bridge the gap between the right and left, he said, it’s difficult to reach an agreement on important legislation.

“One aspect of Congress is that you’ve got to compromise … you’ve got to push your way through,” Thurber said. With no one in the middle, he argued, that kind of compromise becomes impossible.

“There’s lots of activity, there’s lots of sound and fury … [but] the consequence of all that is very little,” he said, adding that the ideological divides that beguile the current Congress are similar to the ones that existed in the period before the Civil War.

So if polarization is the problem, why all this talk of procrastination?

Timothy Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University and the author of “The Procrastinator’s Digest,” said the word “procrastination” is often used as if it were a weapon. “The word implies such a moral failing,” Pychyl said. “It implies irrationality.”

He said that often people become impatient and accuse one side of procrastination, when in fact that side is simply weighing the options and trying to reach the best decision possible. To Boehner, for instance, temporarily extending the payroll tax cut in December might have seemed irrational, even lazy, but to other members of Congress it was simply the most feasible option at the time.

Pychyl believes that kind of delay is a healthy symptom of democracy. Echoing Ritchie, he argued that the delay in Congress, far from being procrastination, is in fact a natural part of how our political system functions.

As he put it, “One person’s needless delay is another person’s due diligence.”