Congress Is Failing

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If Republicans and Democrats can't solve their latest stalemate, disaster victims will go without federal relief

Capitol at night - AP Photo:Ron Edmonds - banner.jpg

Remember the time when being a political junkie meant you had an insatiable curiosity about the twists and turns in the policies, personalities, ideas, debates, and outcomes in Washington?

Now it means you just sift junk.

Today's daggers-drawn standoff over disaster funding and keeping the government open is but the latest tragic-comedy manifestation of a legislative and political system mired in madness.

By all accounts, the Disaster Relief Fund within the Federal Emergency Management Agency will run out of money as early as Monday. It may stay afloat until Wednesday. That means by the middle of next week, the world's most powerful economy, sickened and weakened by declining consumer confidence and persistent unemployment, will consciously decide not to help its citizens and businesses recover from natural disasters--thereby prolonging economic and emotional misery in dozens of states. What's more, this same government appears headed for another shutdown or, at minimum, a period of insecurity about a shutdown that will only intensify economic jitters.

There are, of course, legislative and political reasons behind this stalemate. The question, though, is do they make any sense outside of the 202 area code?

Does anyone honestly believe a victim of Hurricane Irene floodwaters cares whether or not House and Senate Democrats have found unity in their fight with Republicans over disaster funding? Washington tends toward insularity and always has. It always feels a bit alien and characterized by inordinate navel-gazing, partisan high-fiving, and slow-moving legislative chess matches. But even by these standards, this week's stalemate appears to have reached a new low of cloakroom craziness--where something that seems justified in the cloakroom (building party unity, scoring legislative points, shielding sacred cows) looks like malpractice to the average taxpayer.

Not only is Congress tied in knots over providing $3.6 billion in disaster assistance, it can't agree to keep the government operating until Nov. 18.

Nov. 18?!?! Congress is supposed to keep the government open for a full year. It's supposed to pass budget resolutions and appropriations bills and do so before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30. It now looks upon a short-term stopgap spending bill as a legislative mountain to climb. A mountain? By any standard, it's an anthill. Mature governments in First World countries do this nonchalantly.

Everyone on Capitol Hill has said they want to work in good faith. Everyone says the stakes are high. Everyone says they are seeking common ground. But, just as with the debt ceiling, the first instinct is to dig trenches deeper.

Everyone is to blame: The administration was slow to move on disaster funding, ignoring House GOP demands to engage on the question as the House drafted and passed in June a Homeland Security spending bill that boosted disaster aid over Obama's request by $2 billion. Senate Democrats did almost nothing to move a Homeland Security spending bill in response to the House bill. House Republicans chose to offset some of its disaster funding by cutting funding to a program it knew the administration valued--the Advanced Vehicle Manufacturing Loan program that seeks to fund the development of fuel-efficient vehicles. The House GOP didn't cut any of its favored programs, only one it knew the administration wanted to protect.

Senate Democrats don't want to budge, because they believe the vehicle manufacturing program creates jobs and pursues a legitimate policy goal--accelerating the development of cars with better fuel efficiency. But the reality is the program, according to the Department of Energy, has more than $4 billion in unobligated funds. The administration is trying to move those funds out the door as rapidly as possible, another reason it doesn't want to see a cut of $1.5 billion. When the House GOP failed to pass its continuing resolution this week, it rallied its troops in part by adding another cut of $100 million to the Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program that funded the now-bankrupt Solyndra. That move struck Democrats as punitive, political, and divisive--intensifying partisan tensions.

But there is room to negotiate ... if Republicans wanted to reduce the slice out of a favored administration program and replace it with nicks taken out of other federal spending programs. Cuts could be found elsewhere. House GOPers identified a raft of them during the first debate over a continuing resolution earlier this year.

Senate Democrats drafted a bigger disaster relief bill, one that attracted 10 Republican votes. That bigger bill, with a price tag of $6.8 billion, has been abandoned and Senate Democrats now agree with House Republicans that $3.6 billion is enough to meet immediate needs. Both sides know when all the disaster aid requests come in the amount can go up.

In other words, this debate is no longer about how much money to give the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It's about the parties wanting to lay down markers about unity, their ability to defend turf, and their willingness to fight over the smallest issues--even if it means threatening for the second time this year a government shutdown and leaving penniless the Disaster Relief Fund and the victims it serves.

That may make sense in the House and Senate cloakrooms. It may make for tight sound-bites at the microphones. But it looks and sounds like a Beltway culture that's lost sight of the people it is meant to serve and the rudimentary tasks of governing it is obligated to carry out.

Image credit: Ron Edmonds/AP

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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