This Congress's Work Is Never Done

As members squabble over tax hikes and spending cuts, the rest of their work piles up

Remember earlier this year, when Democrats and Republicans in Congress were in a panic over all the unfinished work they’d let pile up from last year—things like passing the budget of the United States of America? Remember the bitter fight that ended in a slapdash midnight agreement that barely averted a government shutdown, leaving Washington in such a poisonous state that this summer party leaders almost let the country default on its debt? Well, get ready for that again a few months from now.

As they traded swipes for much of the year over tax hikes vs. spending cuts, Congress once again allowed a huge amount of work to languish. Now that members have returned from summer vacation, they are trying to figure out how to get it all done before year’s end.

The list of pressing business includes a lingering dispute over funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, which led to a partial shutdown of the agency this summer. The FAA has been limping along on a series of temporary cash infusions—21 of them and counting—because Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on the agency’s budget. Congress has until Sept. 16 to approve yet another extension that will allow the FAA to continue paying for airport construction projects and collect taxes on airline tickets, which bring in $28.6 million a day.

Representative John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, have signaled they aren’t close to reaching a deal. So they’ll likely wind up kicking it down the road again with another short-term allotment. Party leaders are foreshadowing a battle even over that.

That’s just one of many skirmishes to come over expensive federal programs that affect millions of Americans. Two weeks after money for the FAA is set to dry up, funding for major highway projects will expire unless Congress votes to temporarily extend it—for the seventh time—while members haggle over permanent funding. Failing to extend the surface transportation bill would result in the furlough of about 8,000 federal highway workers and a loss of about $85 million a day in tax revenue, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis of IRS data. Senator Tom A. Coburn (R-Okla.) has threatened to block the extension unless it’s stripped of projects that he says aren’t related to highways.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is just what Mica did earlier this year, when he threatened to block FAA funds unless $16.5 million in subsidies for rural airports were stripped out. (Some of the airports were pet projects in the home states of prominent Democrats, including Rockefeller and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.)

In all, some 53 laws amounting to about $767 billion in spending are up for reauthorization before Sept. 30. Congress must decide whether to extend 71 expiring tax breaks for things like railroad track maintenance, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation. Funding for the Coast Guard is also up for approval. “If you add all of these small-seeming things, you’re talking about a significant number of jobs,” says Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid.

Congress has to figure out what to do about the U.S. Postal Service, which is nearing its $15 billion borrowing limit and could default if nothing is done to shore it up. There is also a growing backlog of government positions waiting to be filled, if legislators can get around to them. Currently 43 federal appointees who’ve been approved by congressional committees are awaiting confirmation. These include 21 judges and those named to fill spots at the White House, cabinet departments, and federal agencies. In jittery, mistrustful Washington, any one of these seemingly mundane bits of business could unexpectedly touch off the next big showdown.

Take disaster relief. A Senate committee is poised to seek a $3.35 billion bump in the government’s disaster fund over last year’s level as officials assess damage from Hurricane Irene, which left flooding and destruction from North Carolina to Vermont. At another time such a request would have been routinely approved. This year it is another opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to jab over the size and scope of government. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) demanded budget cuts to offset any increase in the fund. Democrats excoriated Cantor for being heartless—but so did several small-government Republicans from hurricane-damaged states.

On top of all that, congressional leaders are pushing to complete a major overhaul of the patent system and three trade agreements. And a bigger, more difficult task awaits: the federal budget. Congress is supposed to pass the 12 vast appropriations bills needed to fund the government in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That deadline will come and go. The bipartisan supercommittee charged with finding big cuts in government spending has until Thanksgiving to issue its recommendations, which means any serious budget discussions will be pushed off until just before the holidays, and—once again—any serious budget negotiations won’t get under way until after the new year. You know where the story goes from there.


    The bottom line: Congress is sitting on a massive backlog of unfinished business, with 50 laws and $767 billion in spending waiting to be authorized.

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