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?

Tea Party backed GOP members are boasting that they were able to stop Democrats from spending more. Senate Democrats claim they tried to pass important legislation but were stymied by Republicans.

This stalemate will undoubtedly continue at least through the election and push any substantive action to the end of the year -- or possibly into 2013.

* * *

In the lame duck session after the election, Congress will have to deal with the "fiscal cliff" -- the automatic federal spending cuts and expiration of tax reduction programs all scheduled to hit on Jan. 1. The Bush tax cuts and many other tax provisions expire at the end of the year. The Senate has passed legislation to continue the reductions for those making less than $250,000 and the House has passed a one-year extension of all of the cuts.

Since no federal budget has been approved, the government runs out of money at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. Congressional leaders have reached a tentative agreement to fund the government for an additional six months but that deal still has to be approved by the members of the House and Senate.

Conservative GOP House freshmen might be expected to balk at the deal except that Republicans probably don't want to take the chance of reminding people about the disastrous government shutdown of 1995 for which they were blamed.

The government may not be forced to grind to a halt but the Pentagon and federal agencies don't know how much money they will have to spend or if they will need to lay off federal workers thanks to "sequestration," mandatory cuts to federal programs authorized by bipartisan House and Senate votes last year.

When members of the "Supercommittee" couldn't agree last fall on how to deal with the nation's debt and deficit, Congress approved a sudden-death mechanism that triggers $100 billion in automatic budget cuts split between defense and non-defense programs. The reductions will take effect Jan. 1, 2013 unless the two parties can agree on a plan to reduce the $1 trillion deficit by the end of the year or find a way -- to use Washington's favorite metaphor -- to kick the can down the road.

Privately, some Democrats say maybe they should just let the sequestration cuts happen so that Americans can feel the pain of such severe federal budget cuts. And some Republicans are saying if the Democrats won't agree to extend tax cuts for the wealthy -- let all of the Bush tax cuts expire to force their hand. But this game of chicken with the U.S. economy is not only childish, it has the potential to have dire consequences at a time when the economy and the American people can't stand much more.

A just released Congressional Budget Office report predicts that a combination of deep federal spending cuts and a tax increase would trigger another recession and a nine percent unemployment rate. Even now, many economists say the uncertainty about how, or if, Congress will deal with these issues is having a negative impact on business decisions.

Republicans, worried about the planned defense cuts, are threatening to shift all of the reductions to entitlement programs -- a strategy that would never get through the Democratic controlled Senate. And defense contractors and lobbyists are gearing up to swarm the Capitol in September, pressuring members of both parties to prevent the cuts. There have been bipartisan groups in both the House and Senate championing efforts to deal with the nation's budget and fiscal problems with a mixture of revenue increases, entitlement reform and spending cuts and using the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan as a model. But so far they haven't gotten much traction.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia has worked for two years with a group originally called the Gang of Six to try to work out a deficit reduction plan based on Simpson-Bowles.

"I'm really hoping that reasonable people in both parties will say 'no mas'. If we don't get it fixed we all ought to get fired. Politics is the only business I've ever seen where people can make a whole career out of just being against stuff," said Warner. "Acting irresponsibly has become the norm."

Mitt Romney's selection of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, who advocates deficit reduction through deep spending cuts in domestic programs, Medicare and other entitlements, but no new revenue, has insured that this issue will be part of the election discussion.

Ryan and Tom Coburn were both members of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission. But while Ryan voted against it, Coburn, who is also a member of the Gang of Six, voted in favor of the final commission report. "Let's have the fight about the solutions but let's quit lying about the problems. We need some people with guts in Washington willing to do what's right," Coburn insisted.

Like most Democrats, Udall believes you can't deal with the debt unless you discuss revenue as well as spending: "Until the Tea Party element decides they really want the country to move forward...we're going to be challenged. They think if you cut taxes and end the federal government everything is going to be hunky dory."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass, agreed with that assessment. "This is the most radical group and they have the rest of the Republican Party terrified...they're extremists," he said. At 72, Frank has decided he's also leaving Congress at the end of this year. Always blunt-spoken, he's become more critical of the hyper-partisan atmosphere as his departure date approaches.

"I think it's a misconception to say it's the freshmen that are causing the problem," said Rep. Charlie Bass, a New Hampshire Republican. "There is a group of very conservative people in our caucus that are holding things up, but it's not just the freshmen."

Bass supported the Simpson Bowles plan and is part of a small House group led by Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette and Democrat Jim Cooper that is pushing for a similar debt reduction approach that includes revenue increases, spending cuts and entitlement reform.

LaTourette, who has served in the House since 1994 and is one of a few remaining moderate Republicans, abruptly announced at the end of July that he is also leaving Congress, saying he's had enough of the partisanship, polarization and inability to get things done. LaTourette told Roll Call that compromise has become "a dirty word."

Everything has become about politics, said Coburn. "The election has been going on now for 18 months and it's sickening." Coburn was reelected to his second Senate term in 2010 but says he won't seek another.

Ritchie, the Senate historian, said it's wrong to blame the institution of Congress, when the political parties are the problem: "We are the most polarized we've been in 100 years -- but it's the parties. You can't expect a productive Congress if one party is in charge of the House and another in charge of the Senate. It's two equal bodies that frustrate each other constantly and it's a recipe for gridlock."

Sen. Snowe believes the ultimate power for fixing things rests with the voters. "The American people are going to have to think about whom they're voting for and reward those politicians willing to work together and penalize those who don't," she predicted.

But she's not optimistic that will happen before she leaves the Senate.

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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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