The most disliked, unproductive Congress in decades planned to leave Washington this week until after the November election, departing without agreements on virtually every big issue it deals with: taxes, defense, spending, farms, even post office policy.
Lawmakers spent Thursday pointing fingers and charging opponents with cynical political posturing. Among Congress’ last decisions was a characteristic 2012 judgment: Punt action until later. It will let the farm bill, a broad measure that sets the nation’s agriculture and food and nutrition assistance policies, expire Sept. 30.
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Congress also exits without any serious effort to edge away from the “fiscal cliff,” the prospect of economy-damaging budget chaos if it doesn’t act by year’s end. Bush-era tax cuts are due to expire, and automatic spending cuts will take effect unless alternatives are passed.
The public is noticing, as the legislative failures stir uncertainty and further roil an already-weak economy. This Congress’ approval ratings were stuck at 13 percent in a Gallup survey Sept. 6-9, the lowest the pollster has ever logged this late in an election year since such measurements began in 1974.
Yet lawmakers are slinking out of town, after a September session that was on and off for less than two weeks, following a summer recess that ran from Aug. 3 to Sept. 10. Congress is expected to return Nov. 13.
“Leaving town in disgrace,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a 30-year congressional veteran.
“This is the most dysfunctional Congress I can remember,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan consumer-advocacy group. “I’ve never seen Capitol Hill work so poorly.”
Republicans and Democrats agree on this much: The inertia was spawned by the unusually hostile partisanship that’s come to dominate political dialogue and debate.
The result of years-long trends, the parties have been all but purged of philosophical outliers. New England and mid-Atlantic Republican moderates have nearly vanished, and the centrist Democratic Blue Dog caucus shrank from roughly 54 members in the last Congress to fewer than half that now.
That’s hardened the ideological lines, and leaders have had to become defenders of those ideologies instead of the consensus-builders they’ve been in the past. They’ve also spent much of the year blaming the other side.
“I have always said the sooner we can do it, the better. There is no reason why we should inch closer to a cliff,” said California’s Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives. “The sooner that we can instill confidence in the economy that we can get this job done. And President Obama supported that one year ago, and the Republicans walked away.”
No, the Republicans counter, it’s the Democrats who are stubborn.
“We’ve got multiple crisis-level issues to deal with. And yet Democrats don’t want to do a thing,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Thursday in a floor speech. “Never before has a president and a Senate done so little to confront challenges so great.”
Efforts are quietly afoot to find some common ground. The farm bill is expected to pass later this year. In the Senate, a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” has been talking regularly about fiscal compromise, holding dinners and bringing in dozens of other senators. Congressional leaders are not involved.
“The whole idea is to come up with an outline,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.
Such talk has been going on for months, though, and it’s produced no tangible results. Last year, it took a summer’s worth of higher-level negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders before a last-minute agreement was reached to raise the nation’s debt limit and cut spending.
The turmoil was a major factor in pushing financial rating agencies to lower the nation’s credit rating below AAA in August 2011 for the first time in 70 years.
“The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed,” the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s explained.
Prospects for a new agreement have been elusive, and no one is going home optimistic.
“If you kick the can down the road you continue to further uncertainty, and inconsistency, and a lack of predictability. That’s what this Congress has done, because it’s refused to deal with issues,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
It’s not just the major battles. This Congress also struggled to pass what’s usually routine legislation.
Fights stalled action on highway legislation, extending domestic violence laws, providing disaster aid and keeping interest rates low on student loans.
The lengthy summer recess didn’t cool passions; if anything, it inflamed them. No new 12-month budget would be considered. Instead, lawmakers were eyeing a six-month stopgap that funds the government through early next year.
The farm bill got stuck because of disagreements over how to reduce spending on food stamps. The Senate adopted, in a bipartisan vote, a plan to cut billions from farm and food programs over the next decade. House Republicans wanted further reductions, however.
Perhaps the most obvious victims of this war have been post offices. The 112th Congress has approved renaming more than 25 post offices so far but has failed to agree on an overhaul measure to rescue the financially strapped Postal Service.
The agency reported losing $57 million a day in the last quarter, and it defaulted last month for the first time on health benefits payments for future retirees. It’s set to miss a second payment of $5.6 million at the end of this month.
The Postal Service has been pressing Congress to allow it to do away with Saturday delivery and reduce its annual health payments. The Senate passed its version of a Postal Service bill in April, but the House has failed to act.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe recently may have inadvertently summed up not only the plight of the post offices, but also the entire Congress.
“This is no way to run any kind of business,” he said.