Do-Nothing Congress Packs Up and Rushes for the Door
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The Fiscal Times
September 20, 2012

Congress was trying to put the finishing  touches on a major six-month stop-gap spending resolution on Thursday afternoon as lawmakers rushed  to return home to resume campaigning  in the run-up to the Nov. 6 presidential election.

The Senate voted 67 to 31 on Thursday afternoon  to proceed with a  debate and final vote  on the measure  to provide a little more than $1 trillion of discretionary  funds  throughout next March to avoid a government shutdown, with the aim of completing its work later in the day. The House overwhelmingly approved the legislation late last week, 329 to 91.

But despite the political unanimity to keep the government operating smoothly well into the new year,  the 112th Congress will go down in the record books as one of the most politically divided and least productive bodies in generations – and one seemingly averse to putting in long hours in Washington.

“We have spent virtually the entire year avoiding doing serious business because the majority doesn’t want to take any difficult votes,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters on Wednesday. “It really is quite embarrassing that the Senate is so dysfunctional.” 

Indeed, the  six-month stop gap spending resolution is a testament to the failure of the two chambers to reach agreement on a new budget and the annual appropriations bills  needed to  fund the operations of the government in fiscal 2013.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other Democratic leaders obviously don’t see things that way – and they blame McConnell and the GOP-controlled House for standing in the way of many of President Obama’s economic initiatives. 

Reid told reporters today that Republican criticism of his achievements as Senate leader in the face of hundreds of GOP filibusters over the years “takes a lot of chutzpah.”

But just about everyone must agree that Congress will be leaving behind scores of pieces of unfinished business, including measures to combat cybercrimes, to bolster the financially ailing postal service, to provide jobs to veterans, to protect women from domestic violence, to extend major and minor expiring tax provisions, and to begin coming to terms with the looming fiscal cliff.

This Congress passed a mere 173 public laws as of last month, well below the 906 enacted from January 1947 through December 1948 by the body that President Harry S. Truman dubbed the “do-nothing Congress,” according to The New York Times.

For sure, the congressional calendar often shrinks during an election year and expands when lawmakers aren’t stuck campaigning in their districts. House members have met 111 days so far in 2012, compared to 177 days last year, according to congressional records. Through 2006, the overall trend was fewer days in session, but the new pattern has been determined by the wave elections that overturned majorities in the different chambers – causing the election year vs. non-election year phenomenon to become more pronounced.

As preposterous as it may seem, Congress has been back at work for barely two weeks since a five-week recess this summer when lawmakers took vacations, campaigned for reelection and attended the two national conventions. After more time off on Monday and Tuesday of this week for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish holiday, lawmakers were back at the Capitol on Wednesday for hearings, a few votes, and a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony honoring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader. 

There was one glimmer of hope that lawmakers may be getting serious about the fiscal cliff, even as they rush for the door. POLITICO reported that leaders on both sides of the aisle in the two chambers have been meeting with key Obama administration officials and economic leaders, quietly mulling over different legislative strategies to avoid a fiscal calamity of expiring tax cuts and sharp, automatic cuts in spending set to occur in early January.

Josh Boak of The Fiscal Times contributed to this report.

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.