A chief criticism lobbed at U.S. lawmakers is that they’re members of a “do-nothing” Congress.
That would be technically incorrect. Congress so far this year has sent 54 bills to President Barack Obama for his signature. Many name post offices and convey land parcels, and most of the rest extend programs lawmakers already passed.
“We’ve become the kick-the-can-down-the-road Congress,” Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who will retire at the end of this session, said in an interview. Congress has been plagued by “disagreement about whether you do anything until you get right down to the wire and then something has to be done,” he said.
The few pieces of major legislation passed in 2012 include a four-year rewrite of federal aviation policy enacted in February after 23 extensions, and a continuation of a payroll tax cut through the end of 2012, which followed a short-term extension of the tax break.
The slow pace of legislating this year mirrors that of 2011 when lawmakers sent 90 bills to Obama that eventually became law. Last year’s output barely topped that of 1995, when 88 bills became law, fewer than any time since the Congressional Record started keeping track in 1947.
This will lead to a year-end legislative pileup and the prospect of delaying major decisions into 2013. The House and Senate are scheduled to work at the same time for 25 days before the Nov. 6 election, and another 16 days for a so-called lame-duck session after the election.
By lawmakers’ own reckoning, it’s not only spending bills for the 2013 fiscal year that will be delayed. Decisions on reducing the nation’s budget deficit or extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts will be pushed to the work days after the election and possibly into next year.
Even the major bills lawmakers completed this year followed short-term extensions enacted to avoid letting programs lapse. Congress voted to fund the nation’s highways one day before the highway and mass transit programs were set to expire. A final agreement followed 10 extensions dating to 2009.
Besides transportation-related programs, the legislation reauthorizes the National Flood Insurance Program, which had been set to expire at the end of July. It also continues, for one year, reduced student-loan interest rates that had been scheduled to double to 6.8 percent on July 1.
Also poised to be temporarily continued this year are agriculture programs as the current farm law is set to expire Sept. 30.
“Neither party has much of an incentive politically to work with the other,” said Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. “Nobody will want to do something that will cost their seats in November.”
That is why lawmakers haven’t been able to agree on major issues concerning the economy, taxes or spending, Zelizer said in a telephone interview. Congress is “incapable of taking the big steps early” because it is “more polarized than it has been in decades,” he said.
A Gallup Poll conducted July 9-12 found 16 percent of Americans approve of Congress’s performance, while 78 percent disapprove.
Only a firm deadline propels Congress to move forward, and, academics say, sometimes lawmakers avoid those deadlines by creating an extension.
Deadline or Recess
Lawmakers “are not going to act on anything unless they face a deadline or a recess; even then they are not guaranteed to have action,” said Ross Baker, a professor of American politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “There are trap doors they can wiggle through, trap doors of their own making.”
The House has passed six spending bills this year and plans to take up the U.S. Defense Department appropriations bill this week. The full Senate hasn’t considered any of the 2013 appropriation measures. That means stopgap measures will be needed to fund the government from the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year through mid-November at the earliest.
Representative Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he plans to write a stopgap measure to fund agencies for the start of fiscal 2013.
“We haven’t decided yet how far it goes,” Rogers said in an interview. “We’re thinking.” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has started talking members “through all the possibilities that are out there,” Representative James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican and a member of the Budget Committee, said in an interview.
Annual spending decisions will be complicated by automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion required by a 2011 agreement to raise the U.S. debt limit. The reductions, slated to start in January 2013, were designed to push Congress to find other deficit-reduction proposals to replace them. Senate and House lawmakers so far haven’t agreed on such a plan.
Punting on government spending, the automatic cuts and tax policy until next spring to buy more time is being discussed as a possible option. Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who leads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he’s aware of discussions to put off so-called fiscal-cliff issues until March.
‘Matter of Triage’
“It’s a matter of triage right now, trying to keep the patient alive,” Cornyn said when asked whether he sees Congress passing stopgap measures on fiscal issues.
Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said Republicans may be willing to allow lower tax rates to lapse this year if it leads to a better fiscal deal for them in early 2013. They may take that approach if Republican Mitt Romney wins the November presidential election.
The Republican-led House plans to vote this month to extend for one year the tax cuts that expire at the end of 2012, preserving current rates on income, capital gains, dividends and estates. The House voted earlier this year to replace the automatic defense cuts that amount to half of the $1.2 trillion.
Meanwhile, the Senate will vote this month on Obama’s proposal to extend tax cuts only for families earning less than $250,000 a year. Neither chamber will take up the other’s proposal.
If the tax cuts lapse, Democrats may be in a stronger negotiating position to extend them for married couples earning less than $250,000 a year, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the chamber’s fourth-ranking Democrat, said today in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“If middle-class families start seeing some money coming out of their paychecks next year, are Republicans really going to stand up and fight for new tax cuts for the rich?” Murray said, adding that Republican opposition would become ”an untenable political position.”
Senate Democrats view their inaction on House legislation as an “accomplishment,” said Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.
“There were efforts made to really move in the wrong direction, and we were able to block a lot of very damaging bills to our environment, to health care,” he said in an interview.
The divide between the parties on fiscal matters is clearly defined and nothing will change before the November election, lawmakers said.
“I don’t think we are in any let’s-bury-the-hatchet mood today,” said Representative Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican. “The American people are not giving us a very high approval rating because they are tired of us not being able to get anything done.”
While Congress isn’t the only legislative body in the world that is viewed as dysfunctional, it is unique, according to Rutgers’ Baker.
“Congress is one of the very few legislative bodies in the world that really matters,” Baker said in a telephone interview. “It really is the center of the political system.”