The U.S. House has a message for voters who want to cut spending: It passed a bill repealing a long-term health care program that the Obama administration had already dropped, and would bar welfare recipients from spending their benefits in strip clubs and casinos.
The Senate is reaching out to voters who think Congress doesn’t play by the rules, passing a measure prohibiting lawmakers from making stock trades based on non-public information, though insider trading is illegal.
These bills are a glimpse of the year ahead as party leaders battling for House and Senate control in the November election seek political gain from each piece of legislation. Though last year’s gridlock led to record-low public approval ratings for Congress, broad policy changes will be minimal in 2012 as lawmakers instead try to appeal to voters with small gestures or by painting stark party differences.
“In 2012, nobody should have high hopes, other than a few things that have to get done,” said Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican. “The likelihood is that everything will be set up not for the finality of an issue, but for the purposes of messaging about who stands where on every given thing.”
The practice has its costs. U.S. taxpayers will spend $94.2 million this year on the salaries of all members of the House and Senate. On a per-day basis, that works out to $1,598 paid to individual House members for each of the 109 days the House is scheduled to work this year. In the Senate, which has scheduled 187 days of work, it comes out to $933 a day.
Considering bills that won’t become law also chews up debate time. In 2011 the House was in session 175 days, while the Senate worked 170 days.
Such bills are a matter of course in Congress, where party leaders who control the agenda engage in a blend of policy making and political strategy to protect their influence. They often let the scales tip heavily to politics as presidential and congressional elections near.
“No one should be surprised this is going on,” said former Representative Martin Frost of Texas, who served in the House from 1978 to 2005 and once shaped party election strategy as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Messaging to voters doesn’t always crowd out policy making. In 2008, the last presidential election year, Democrats controlled both chambers during the financial crisis. Congress enacted a $700 billion bailout plan, $600 individual tax rebates to help stimulate the economy, and a five-year, $289 billion farm bill. With split control of the House and Senate this year, though, few anticipate a replay of serious policy legislation.
‘Congress as Playhouse’
“This is Congress as playhouse, not Congress as legislative powerhouse,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. “They symbolically affirm their commitment to certain issues that concern the public, but they don’t add very much to the laws on the books.”
That scenario is playing out early this election year. Both chambers last week took symbolic votes on President Barack Obama’s request for a $1.2 trillion increase in the nation’s debt limit.
The votes gave Republicans in both chambers a chance to blame the Obama administration for the rising government debt. Still, lawmakers couldn’t prevent an increase in borrowing because Congress last year gave the president the ability to lift the debt ceiling on his own.
This week in the House, a measure to repeal the long-term care program let Republicans vote against a portion of Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul while many candidates in their party are campaigning to undo the law.
The vote didn’t change anything, as the government said in October it was suspending the program because it couldn’t make the effort financially viable. Republicans say they’re concerned the program could be resurrected.
The House this week passed other bills appealing to voters who favor tax cuts and reduced spending. A plan for budget process changes would give greater weight to tax cuts’ potential to boost revenue and help reduce budget shortfalls. The House targeted welfare recipients in a bill passed Feb. 1 that would stop them from cashing in debit-card benefits at liquor stores, casinos and strip clubs.
The House voted to deny a cost-of-living raise to federal government workers for a third straight year, while freezing the pay of members of Congress. The bill was introduced by Representative Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican who faces a close re-election race, at a time when Obama is pressing for a 0.5 percent raise for federal workers.
In the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, Majority Leader Harry Reid has no intention of advancing any of these measures, said his spokesman, Adam Jentleson.
“These things are going to come to a full stop in the Senate,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat. “What you have for the most part is show-horse legislation that will die in the Senate, rather than workhorse legislation that addresses the economy and jobs.”
Still, Senate Democratic leaders won’t be outdone.
On Jan. 30 they had three senators up for re-election in November speak to reporters about the insider-trading bill. The bill clarifies that members of Congress and their staffs can’t trade securities, commodities and futures based on non-public information, and boosts disclosure requirements for trades.
Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York acknowledged there is little data to support claims of abuse by lawmakers. She said the bill will help assuage voters at a time of record-low approval ratings for lawmakers in both parties.
“I think you need to instill confidence that we play by the same rules, and that’s why I believe it’s so important,” said Gillibrand, who was joined on a press conference call by Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Senator Jon Tester of Montana.
Following a year in which Congress took the federal government to the brink of a shutdown four times, just 13 percent of the public approved of the job lawmakers are doing and 80 percent disapproved, according to a Jan. 22-24 NBC-Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 adults. A CBS News-New York Times poll of 1,154 adults, taken Jan. 12-17, showed 19 percent approved of congressional Republicans and 26 percent approved of Democrats.
Lack of Results
Ultimately, there’s a disconnect between the low approval ratings and how Congress spends its time, because the public’s view is driven by cynicism over the lack of results, said Michael Dimock, research director at the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based nonpartisan group that studies public opinion.
“The polling we’ve seen suggests the public is very ready to expect meaningless gestures from members,” Dimock said. “The challenge to members is to show they can address the real problems the public is concerned about.”
The Senate is reserving debate on such measures for later in the year, when Democratic leaders plan to take up portions of Obama’s tax agenda, including a tax increase for high earners, although Republicans have blocked such proposals in the past. Democrats also will return to parts of Obama’s $447 billion jobs agenda that Republicans stalled in 2011.
That agenda will help the 16 incumbent Democratic senators on the November ballot, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
‘In Their Favor’
“They get to make Republicans vote on bills they’d rather not, and they get to set up Republicans as obstructionists,” Duffy said. “It plays in their favor.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, is working on an agenda to help the more vulnerable among his members and divide Democrats. With gas prices still high, he is pushing a highway construction bill financed with money generated by oil exploration, including in an Alaskan wildlife refuge where drilling is opposed by many Democrats.
Only a handful of substantive measures may get through Congress this year, Pitney said. He predicts that will include an extension of a payroll tax cut and the annual appropriations bills.
“The most the public can reasonably hope for is to avoid another government shutdown,” Pitney said. “If the end of the year rolls around and you can still enter a national park, it will have been a success.”