Our Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Congress

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It's had the most unproductive session in half a century -- and we can look forward to more of the same when it comes back from recess.

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Just when you thought members of Congress couldn't get any more ridiculous or despised, a rash of stories makes it clear that they can.

After a night of partying on a junket to Israel, a group of Republicans decided to take a dip in the Sea of Galilee, including freshman Kevin Yoder of Kansas, who did it without any clothes. It may be no great sin, but conservatives are upset about the affront to the dignity of office -- after all, the first rule of adult life is keep your clothes on in public.

Yoder's story would have floated longer if it hadn't been for Todd Akin's peculiar theories about female reproduction and the possibility of "legitimate rape." Comments by the six-term congressman from Missouri drew howls of protest from Mitt Romney and other party leaders, who are all calling for Akin to drop his bid for Claire McCaskill's senate seat. Not only does Akin's continued candidacy threaten Republican chances to retake the Senate, it shines a spotlight on a GOP platform that calls for a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion in all cases -- including rape, incest and threats to the health or life of the mother.

Voters, as well as members of Congress who have been trying to enjoy their August recess, must be wondering what could possibly be next.

Whatever it is, it's unlikely to be major legislation to help the country. Though Congress is scheduled to reconvene after the party conventions end, its record-low approval rating of 10 percent reflects the near-certainty that when it returns to Washington, it will once again slide into gridlock and inaction.

So far this year Congress has been in session for less than 100 days. On some of those days, it's been in session for just a few hours. It has passed a measly 61 pieces of legislation -- the worst record of legislative accomplishment since 1947. That list would be even thinner, except it includes things like naming post office branches (which may not exist much longer if Congress doesn't act to preserve the viability of the U.S. Postal Service).

"What have we done this year? Well, we did do FDA reform - that was actually a pretty good bill and we even had a conference committee," said Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn before the break.

Any high school civics class -- where they are still offered -- knows that the way a bill becomes a law is that the House and Senate each pass legislation and the two bodies work out the differences in the bills through a conference committee. But when neither side is willing to consider compromise there is no real point in trying. The result: there have been just three conference committees held so far this year.

Congress did manage to pass a transportation/highway bill which funds state and local highway and infrastructure projects. But on a slew of other important issues facing the nation -- from addressing tax provision expirations, the federal budget, and scheduled mandatory spending cuts to saving the Postal Service -- Congress either took no action in 2012 or the House and Senate completely disregarded each other, passing legislation which had no chance of consideration by the other body.

"It's unbelievable isn't it?" Sen. Olympia Snowe asked rhetorically. The Maine Republican announced earlier this year that she has had enough of the partisanship and dysfunction and wouldn't seek reelection.

"You just can't fathom we haven't been able to contend with these major questions. We constantly defer -- just delaying, and denying and obstructing," Snowe said. "There's a huge chasm between reality in the rest of America and the fantasy world we're living in here. We're in a world of pretend on the floor of the Senate."

"We're in a world of pretend on the floor of the Senate," said Olympia Snowe.

The farm bill with its food stamp and agricultural subsidy programs has historically been one of the most bipartisan things Congress does. Not this year. The Senate passed a farm bill but the House refused to consider the measure, instead waiting until just before members left town at the beginning of August to pass its own emergency drought relief -- which the Senate then proceeded to ignore. Much of the heartland may be sweltering and drying up during this, the hottest year on record, but Americans will have to wait until September to see if Congress is going to offer any help to farmers and livestock producers who have been devastated by drought.

"In the old days, if you came home without a farm bill you're not going to be re-elected. That would have gotten you fired for sure if you came from a rural district," said Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat.

"I just don't understand why there isn't a deep concern in Congress about what's transpiring across the country -- there's a panic, fear and tremendous anxiety that's affected the American psyche," Snowe said.

Meanwhile, the Postal Service, hemorrhaging money and badly in need of reorganization, has defaulted on a scheduled $5.5 billion payment to a future retiree health-care fund and is expecting not to make an equally large payment in September. But cost-cutting measures that would save the service, like eliminating Saturday delivery, can't be done without congressional approval.

"It's going to go belly up. It's eventually going to go down the tubes," predicted Coburn. He blames parochial interests for the congressional inaction. As with so many issues facing Congress, members don't really want to be honest with their constituents about the difficult fiscal choices this nation faces, like closing post offices in their districts or making cuts to popular but expensive rural and door-to-door postal service, to keep the USPS solvent.

The Republican-controlled House and Democratic Senate couldn't even agree about whether or not Congress should officially adjourn for five weeks. The House threatened to officially remain in session, essentially just to screw with the Senate, but then changed its mind. Of course nobody from the House bothered to tell the Senate staff until after they had gathered to organize a pro forma session.

"They may be in the same building but they're miles apart right now," said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.

"I would say we're dysfunctional and we're dysfunctional because we don't have good leadership," said Coburn. "It would be wonderful if the president and Harry (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) and John Boehner (Speaker of the House) stood up and said we're going to do these things. But that would require leadership on their parts."

A bipartisan Senate cybersecurity bill to protect the nation's infrastructure and financial system fell victim to business lobbyists and a Republican filibuster threat led by Sen. John McCain the last day before recess.

Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican moderate from Maine and one of the sponsors of the legislation, called the Senate's failure to act "shameful."

What can members of Congress possibly say to their constituents about why they deserve to be reelected?

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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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