According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 6 percent of Americans think Congress is doing a good or excellent job (amazingly, just slightly above the margin of error!). Many would point to the country's frustration with a body unable to pass even the most trivial of legislation, and the constant finger-pointing across the aisle. But, as we continue to watch the debate over extending student loan rates, and the Keystone Pipeline, we're reminded that there are broader issues we should be considering.
Congress isn't actually addressing the underlying structural issues that are impeding economic growth, global competitiveness, and national security. Instead, they are looking for incremental, "quick fix" legislation to placate constituents. Much like the national debt crisis, we're unfortunately choosing to simply kick the can further down the road. It's much like the way many girls (even some guys) comfort themselves following a bad breakup. While that quart of rocky road ice cream is a soothing remedy at the time, you wake up the next morning with the same problems, but an added bellyache.
Getting to this place didn't happen over night, or even uniquely under President Obama; however, the divisive passing of the Affordable Care Act, a fundamental disagreement of how to solve our economic challenges during the recession, and an (unsurprising) prioritization of electoral politics over the needs of the country has only further impaired Congress' ability to get the work of the people done. (I would be remiss not to mention that a leadership void from the executive branch has only furthered the mischief-making on Capitol Hill.)
The recent debate over the extension of student loan rates is a great example. Today, college students graduate with an average of $23,300 in debt, and the total outstanding student debt in the U.S. is more than $1 Trillion. This is juxtaposed with the fact that only 56 percent of 2010 graduates had a job by the spring of 2011 (vs. 90 percent in 2006 and 2007).
So, while extending student loan rates is clearly an important issue (millions of students depend on it to afford post-secondary education), what does reaching a resolution do to tackle our long-term education goals? Competing in the globalized marketplace of the 21st century will require a revised approach reflecting a changing reality. What are we doing to encourage public-private partnerships to better develop a workforce for the needs of America's largest employers? Are we encouraging young people to evaluate options that are best suited for their aspirations and abilities (the standard four-year institution isn't for everyone)? What are we doing to prepare for the industries of tomorrow (i.e., high-tech manufacturing, software development, etc.)?
Similarly, we're taking a myopic approach to America's energy future. With 60 percent of our oil coming from foreign sources (and at least one-third of that from "unfriendly" or politically uncertain regions) and continually rising global demand ($4 gas prices, anyone?), what are we doing to secure our energy independence? The Keystone pipeline is a good place to start, but insufficient (its fully-online capacity only represents around 3 percent of the U.S. refining volume). Should we be more aggressive as we look into utilizing resources available in U.S. territories (e.g., drilling off the coast of south-central Alaska)? Are there ways we can encourage the responsible use of fracking? How do we intend to pursue more sustainable power generation (i.e., wind, solar, nuclear)?
America's opportunities are limitless, and the major challenges to reaching our full potential have largely been identified. But, at this moment in history, we don't have a government that is courageous enough to tackle them. With millions unemployed, massive debt accumulating, and our children falling behind educationally, we need to demand that Congress starts asking the more difficult questions. Right now, we're using Band-Aids to mend a broken bone. From the outside, it might look like the reasonable and easy thing to do, but we all know the pain won't go away until something more substantial is done.