World Affairs

The Do-Nothing Congress Does Nothing Again

September 10, 2014

Congress is back from the five week August recess and House and Senate legislators have a very short session of legislative work days before dashing off again to raise money and campaign. Traditionally, these September sessions before an election do not produce a lot of lawmaking but this year will likely mark a new low.

Congress will have just four full workdays over the next nine weeks.

Even if Congress wanted to act on substantive bills there just isn’t enough time on the clock to do the work. This week in the House, legislators arrived late Monday and plan to depart early on Thursday. Next week there won’t be a full session day until Wednesday. With a scheduled close of session September 19, Congress will have just four full workdays over the next nine weeks. Even the addition of fresh House Republican leadership is unlikely to affect this reality. New Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) and new Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) won’t risk unclogging the legislative pipeline this close to a tight election where Republicans stand a good chance of gaining control of the Senate.

Congress isn’t going to be doing much but it’s certainly not for a lack of things to do. Outstanding issues remain like authorizing the use of force against ISIS, dealing with the President Obama’s supplemental request of nearly $4 billion for beefed-up border security after the influx of child migrants, addressing the immigration system as a whole, legislation on the situation in Ukraine, and the basic stuff such as funding road and bridge repair. However, it appears there isn’t enough time or willpower in Congress to address these issues before Election day. Not while there are voters to talk to and money to be raised!

Congress will pass at least one – but likely only one – bill before returning to the campaign trail. That one piece of legislation is a continuing resolution (or CR) to keep the government open past September 30 and avert another government shutdown. The need for a CR is a direct result of political gridlock. Despite a decent effort by House and Senate appropriators to move bills forward, the clock has simply run out for this Congress. Passing a CR should be as basic as it gets, so voters won’t see any drama from Washington. Republicans in particular will be eager to see that the government stays open after the negative public backlash over last year’s shutdown.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) unveiled the CR this week. Besides keeping the government open until mid-December, it includes funding for combating Ebola and a short term extension for the controversial Export-Import bank. The Ex-Im bank has been targeted by conservative legislators for elimination in the name of ending crony capitalism, but it appears they will hold their fire until after the election.

As far as legislation goes, this CR is simple and plain. Take it from Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) who said, “Right now, what I hope to be able to do is keep the government open, to avoid a government shutdown, to do no harm and to be as boring as possible.”

Two-thirds of respondents in a recent poll called the 113th Congress the worst in their lifetimes.

All of this inaction isn’t really a dramatic departure from the story of the 113th Congress. This Congress, as measured by public laws agreed to by both chambers and signed by the president, this is the least productive Congress since they started keeping records in 1948. A recent poll shows that the American public is paying attention: two-thirds of respondents called the 113th Congress the worst in their lifetimes. I assume the other third must be very, very old.

Why is it like this? Setting aside all the structural problems like money in politics and extreme partisanship that impede Congress from doing its work, there are simply no political incentives for either party to take legislative action heading into these midterm elections.

The overall political context in which legislators are currently operating is an unfortunate kind of ‘unpopularity contest.’ For politicians, survival on November 4 won’t be about coming out the winner. It will be about not being the bigger loser. Both parties have heavy anchors weighing them down, and both face an increasingly pessimistic and distrustful American public. Although Republicans approach these elections with some advantages, the government shutdown in October badly damaged the Republican brand. Over the course of the last two years, Republican legislators have blocked, opposed, scuttled or otherwise prevented action on a wide variety of issues. Mixed with this negativity is the public perception of the GOP as out of touch and out of date.

For Democrats, President Obama’s low poll numbers and the drag on legislators still forced to re-argue the merits of the Affordable Care Act make for a toxic combination. Low turnout elections are typical for midterms, leaving Democratic candidates triply worried. These factors are obviously not spurring legislators to take on difficult issues or risk bipartisan cooperation to pass new legislation. In fact, most legislators probably wish they could take a quick vote to keep the government open and get back to campaigning.  

Instead, both parties will use precious session time to debate and vote on non-substantive or messaging bills. These types of bills have no hope of becoming law and are really just an extension of their campaign work back in the district. In the House, Republicans will continue chipping away at the Affordable Care Act. And in the Senate, Democrats may try to revisit issues like increasing the minimum wage or other Democratic priorities that have no hope of reaching the 60 vote threshold required to move forward. Our nation deserves the important debates to be had over these policies, but we won’t hear them this fall in Washington. There is no attempt by either party to find compromises on these issues, and there is no appetite by either party to even try.

Our nation deserves the important debates to be had over many pressing matters facing America, but we won’t hear them this fall in Washington.

It’s normal for Congress to leave some of their work unfinished heading into elections. Every legislative decision is made in the context of politics, and that is particularly true in the last few months of an election year. But in this case, the scale of the challenges facing the country is only matched by the complete vacuum of leadership or action by our elected officials. We have arrived at the end of this Congress with so much left to do because most of the last two years have been dedicated to gridlock and partisanship.

There will not be any last minute, miraculous coming together of legislators to take the issues head on; time has run out on the 113th Congress. Hopefully this election can breathe new life into this struggling institution no matter which party prevails. The only way out of our political gridlock is through positive action to address the problems faced by Americans of all political persuasions. Only then can Congress can begin to restore some public trust in government.