Opinion: Congress, Obama should tear up ‘rule of missing government’

There is a general consensus that nothing is going to happen between now and November that requires Congress or the president to work together.

It is strange that every four years, and sometimes even every other year, our government goes into this semi-comatose state for the five or six months running up to the November elections.   

America is a fairly large country to have its government disappear from the scene for such an extended period of time. 

But it does, and it has.

Call this the “Rule of the Missing Government.”  

The belief is that both Congress and the president lose politically if they act during this period, especially if it is a divided government. 

It is better to disappear from the active process of legislating and hit the campaign trail. It is the ultimate risk-adverse approach to governing.

As with all rules, there are exceptions.  

Action does sometimes occur if a crisis comes along — as happened with the near financial collapse the nation and world experienced in September 2008.

This is the “Crisis Brings Action” exception to the “Rule of the Missing Government.”

More often than not when the “Crisis Brings Action” exception kicks in, what follows is that the president and the Congress actually proceed constructively and pass essential legislation addressing the crisis in question.  

The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) is the best example of this. It was passed as a response to the financial crisis.   

It was certainly not ideologically popular with either side, but it did exactly what it was supposed to  do — deliver definitive government action to avoid a massive global market collapse that would have crushed Main Street America.  

As an aside, it ended up making the taxpayers a lot of money.  

It has since been roundly vilified by opportunists — on both the left and right — who ignored the alternative,  which was to flirt with a national depression.

Congress and the presidency have proven through this exception that the “Rule of the Missing Government” does not need to be the natural state in the nation’s capital for the five or six months leading up to a national election.

This year, with the American people reflecting a deeper than usual disgust with Washington’s failure to respond to national problems such as the debt, it might be a good time for the Congress and the president to take another run at the “Crisis Brings Action” exception.

Of course, we do not have a formal crisis — but we will.  We need look no further than Europe to see our future if we fail to address our unsustainable debt.  

Living beyond your means and borrowing huge sums over a long period of time to pay for one’s lifestyle brings crisis both on a family budget and on a national budget and economy.

Lawmakers should therefore pass a “sense of Congress” resolution on the fiscal situation — something it can still do even during this period of disappearance.  

It should declare a crisis and direct itself to proceed under the “Crisis Brings Action” rule.

It should not try and pass a comprehensive bill addressing all the causes of our impending fiscal meltdown.  

Such expansive and substantive action is beyond Congress’s capacity, especially with the summer recess looming and the need to campaign this fall.  

Similar to TARP, Congress should pick one issue that is a driver of our fiscal problems and can be addressed with a focused, single-purpose bill and fix it.

Social Security comes to mind. 

It is a program with dramatic structural problems due to the retirement of the baby boom generation.  

It is a critical program. It is broken. And it is fixable.  

The president and Congress would not need to do heavy policy work. They could simply adopt the bipartisan proposal of Simpson-Bowles on Social Security, which made it sound for at least 50 years, without significantly affecting present beneficiaries.

This one action before the election would give Americans confidence in our government — and the world confidence in us.   

It would be a unique way to run the country during this election period.  It could have an explosively-positive effect on the nation. And it might actually work.

Judd Gregg is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Foreign Operations. He also is an international adviser to Goldman Sachs.