Lawmakers headed home for a five-week break with a lengthy list of uncompleted work and little to show for the past year and a half except an eye-popping amount of dissatisfaction: Nearly 80 percent of Americans are unhappy with them. The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate have set record lows for production and record highs for dysfunction.
Partisanship and election-year politics have left a drought-stricken nation wondering if new help will ever come and the U.S. Postal Service uncertain about its solvency. Some $110 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts are due to hit military and domestic programs on Jan. 2, yet no bipartisan solution is in sight or even under discussion by those who really matter.
At the same time, President George W. Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans expire, threatening to send a sluggish economy right back into recession.
The standoff is what happens when a bitterly divided government mixes with election-year politics to throw sand in the gears of official Washington. The Tea Party-dominated House and a Senate controlled by Democrats struggling to keep their narrow majority in November view each other with a palpable disdain.
House Speaker John Boehner, who came to Washington in 1991, bluntly described the divide that has made consensus a rare commodity.
“The American people are probably more polarized now than any time since I’ve been here,” the Ohio Republican told reporters. “And as a result we see that polarization reflected here in the halls of Congress. And even though both sides have some sharply different views and ideologies, our job is still to find the common ground.”
But common ground is scarce. This is a Congress that can’t do the big stuff while even the small stuff, such as a one-year extension of student loan subsidies that passed in June, makes them sweat.
Congress stumbled out of Washington for a five-week vacation one day early on Thursday on a typical note: a GOP filibuster in the Senate of a bipartisan cybersecurity bill and the House’s abandonment of a one-year extension, as Republican leaders had planned, of food and farm policy.
Senate Republicans were unhappy about being denied a chance to amend the cybersecurity bill. House Republicans were unable to find party unity on food stamps and farm subsidies.
The House settled for a paltry restoration of expired disaster programs for livestock producers and tree farmers. The Senate wouldn’t do even that, demanding instead a full five-year farm bill with 80 percent of it, or about $400 billion, devoted to food stamps.
More broadly, just 151 laws have been enacted in 19 months; more than two dozen of them were to rename post offices and courthouses, or add individuals to the Smithsonian board. By comparison, the previous Congress enacted 383 laws with President Barack Obama in the White House and Democrats controlling Capitol Hill.
Even in 2007-08, when Republican Bush was president and Democrats ran Congress, 460 laws were enacted.
“They think compromise is a dirty word when compromise is necessary to get things done in the era of divided government,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
A poll last month by CBS News and The New York Times found Congress with a 12 percent approval rating and 79 percent disapproval score.
Lawmakers will return in September for what promises to be an abbreviated pre-election session with two main items of business.
Most important is a six-month spending bill to keep the government running through March and prevent any possibility of a politically explosive government shutdown before the election. Not one of the 13 must-pass spending bills has been completed and the new budget year begins Oct. 1.
The warring sides also need to find some solution on farm subsidies and food stamps before the programs expire Sept. 30. The Senate gave bipartisan approval to its farm bill in June but the House has been unable to pass it or a version of its own.
“The House is pretty well divided. You’ve got the left concerned about reductions in the food stamp program, you’ve got the right who don’t think the cuts go far enough in the food stamp program,” Boehner said. “And frankly, I haven’t seen 218 votes in the middle to pass a farm bill.”
A leading option would be to punt the issue into the future, as Congress has done with so much else.
Even what passes for accomplishment often simply extends current policy. There were the recent extensions of transportation funding and student loan subsidies, along with earlier action to extend Obama’s payroll tax cuts and his demand for additional jobless benefits for the longtime unemployed.
“That’s just sort of continuing the status quo,” Van Hollen said. “But in terms of tackling big issues, this Congress has been out of commission.”
Defense hawks hope political pressure in August will force Congress to address the automatic cuts. The reductions were the default that Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last year as part of a deficit-cutting plan that also raised the nation’s borrowing limit.
Republicans accuse Obama of jeopardizing national security. Democrats counter that sparing the military will require Republicans to concede on raising taxes on high-wage earners.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) eagerly talked about trying to work out a compromise in August, but other Republicans and Democrats have shown little interest, content to use the issue as a political club.
“I don’t know how we get out of debt if we don’t have bipartisanship,” Graham said.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested that Congress put off the issue, delaying the cuts for at least one year. Whether Congress can resolve the issue in the postelection session or wait until next year depends on the outcome of the presidential and congressional races.
The possibility of Romney being sworn in Jan. 21 and Republicans taking control of the Senate and House makes a delay more likely.
The real concern ahead is the debt limit.
The Treasury Department has said the government’s borrowing limit will be reached near the end of 2012, but it has the ability to shift money to buy a few months reprieve to give the next Congress time to act. That puts the likely deadline for the borrowing authority on a collision course with the expiration of the temporary spending bill to keep the government operating through March.