Why Congress May Be Done for the Year

It's not even spring yet, but with the elections looming, the House and Senate may already have done everything they will do in 2012.

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The American people think Congress is broken and judging by its track record that assessment is accurate.

The average House and Senate member now sides with their party about 90 percent of the time, according to a recent Congressional Quarterly study, a level of lockstep agreement that reflects the most profound partisan polarization in Congress in 100 years. Now, with Democrats trying to hold onto their majority in the Senate and Republicans trying to win it as the election draws closer, the chance that legislative comity might improve is close to vanishing.

That means that this past February's burst of action, which included an extension of the payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance and dealing with doctors' Medicare reimbursement rates, might be that last significant raft of legislating Congress does this year.

"I didn't get the memo that you get to take presidential election years off," Senator Mark Warner, D-Virginia, joked ruefully in a recent interview.

But because most members right and left now represent safe Republican and Democratic seats, all they have to do is play to their base to get re-elected. And that is exactly what they have set about doing.

Instead of addressing the tough choices before it on jobs, the deficit and budget issues, Congress has been having a series of "message votes" allowing members to rally their core supporters, even though they know the legislation they are voting on has no chance of passage.

The most recent example of this is the failed Blunt amendment -- the amendment to the highway bill put forth in the Senate last week by Missouri Republican Roy Blunt. Puns about the rubber meeting the road aside, the Blunt amendment would have allowed any employers "with moral objections" to opt out of not only the required birth control coverage but any health service for their workers contained in the 2010 health reform law with which they didn't agree.

Maine's Olympia Snowe was the only Republican Senator to oppose the Blunt amendment, reinforcing what a pivotal role she has played in the Senate and how much she will be missed.

In announcing her departure from the Senate last week, Snowe bemoaned that "an atmosphere of polarization and 'my way or the highway' ideologies has become pervasive," adding "I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to change over the short term."

Snowe, along with fellow Maine GOP moderate Susan Collins, has one the most independent records in the Senate, voting with the GOP leadership only about 70 percent of the time.

"I believe we have seen a steady increase in the partisanship and the personal attack mode of politics over the last decade that has resulted in a political climate that is as partisan and gridlocked as I have ever seen it," observes Republican Senator Michael Crapo of Idaho, who has served in Congress for 20 years.

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Linda Killian is a Washington journalist and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents was published in January 2012 by St. Martin's Press.

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