The grand-daddy of all “Do Nothing” Congresses will be departing soon for an undeserved five week summer vacation – leaving behind a pile of unfinished business and a serious humanitarian crisis festering along the U.S.-Mexico border.
While lawmakers likely will be able to claim a modicum of success on a few issues, the House prepared to close up shop Thursday afternoon after Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was forced to pull from the floor two GOP measures to help house, process and deport tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who crossed the border illegally in recent months.
The ultimate fate of those measures may not be known until much later today or early Friday, after Boehner and his GOP conference hold a final emergency meeting before departing for vacation. Regardless of whether the Speaker can salvage these bill, the past few days have once again highlighted the utter dysfunction of Congress.
The 113th Congress broke all records last year for being the biggest do-nothing legislative body in modern times, but some experts are predicting that the Senate and House will manage to top that record before the year is out because of the near-collapse of the legislative process.
Efforts earlier this year to pass big-ticket measures such as overhauling the tax code, raising the minimum wage, and extending long-term unemployment insurance went nowhere or fizzled out. And hopes for a spurt of important legislation before the long summer recess proved to be a massive disappointment.
There has been a last minute flurry of legislative action on the floor of the House and Senate as lawmakers and their leaders tried to gloss over their record of missed opportunities and legislative malfeasance.
Last night, Congress completed work on measures to avert a nationwide shutdown of federal highway and mass transit construction and to fund important reforms of the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system to sharply reduce long waiting lists that have contributed to dozens of death.
The Senate bowed to the demands of the House to go along with its version of a $10.8 billion measure to replenish the federal Highway Trust Fund from the general Treasury, which will be enough to keep the fund afloat through next May, according to the Wall Street Journal. Many Senate Democrats and Republicans had favored a shorter-term extension that would have forced Congress to adopt multi-year, comprehensive transportation legislation before the end of the year. But with time running out on the trust fund, the Senate voted for the House-passed bill.
The Senate also voted 91 to 3 to join the House in passing a $16.3 billion bill that will pay for private doctors and health facilities to care for veterans who have trouble getting into VA facilities, the AP reported. The legislation—prompted by a scandal in which dozens of veterans died while waiting to see doctors – will also finance the hiring of more VA doctors, nurses and other medical staff.
The rest of what the two chambers do before departing will be little more than fantasy legislating and face saving, so that lawmakers will be able tell their constituents with a semi-straight face that they passed some needed bills – even while they have virtually no chance of being signed into law.
Boehner began Thursday by publicly attacking President Obama for taking action to address illegal immigration without the support of Congress. An upcoming vote, he promised, would pass legislation that “helps secure our border and speeds the return of unaccompanied children back to their home countries.”
A second vote, he said, would send the message that Congress would tolerate “no more unilateral action by the president” on immigration issues.
By Thursday afternoon, after a revolt of Tea Party-affiliated members of the House and Boehner was forced to pull the bills from the floor rather than watch them be voted down, the Speaker was suddenly in favor of presidential action.
“There are numerous steps the president can and should be taking right now, without the need for Congressional action, to secure our borders and assure these children are returned swiftly and safely to their countries,” he said in a press release.
One of Boehner’s problems was that one of the bills House leadership put forward offered only a fraction of the $3.7 billion of funding that Obama had requested in his proposal to address the crisis, ensuring that no Democrats would support it.
His other problem was that a large segment of the GOP conference in the House objects to any bill that fails to defund the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows immigrants brought to the U.S. as children prior to 2007 to remain in the country if they meet a number of standards. The House leadership’s proposal does not address DACA.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who has used his influence with the far right element of the House GOP to derail Boehner’s plans in the past, did so again Thursday, helping persuade enough Republicans to oppose the bills that Boehner saw no way forward and removed from the House’s schedule.
The House had been planning to go out of session shortly after 2:30 Thursday, beginning its recess. However, in brief remarks to a raucous chamber of angry lawmakers, new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced that more votes were possible later in the day, following a GOP conference meeting.
The GOP-controlled House managed to find time Wednesday afternoon to debate and pass a resolution to proceed with a lawsuit against President Obama for alleged executive overreach. Angry Democrats denounced the resolution as a political stunt that will be tossed out by the courts.
Little has been done by the two chambers to reach consensus on the 13 fiscal 2015 spending bills that must be approved by the end of September to avoid another government shutdown. Nor is Congress any closer to resolving differences over reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank or trying to keep the economic recovery going.
The Democratic-controlled Senate, for example, has been sitting on four bills passed by House Republicans that arguably could be beneficial to the economy. One would simplify and makes permanent the research and development tax credit, while another one would permanently allow small businesses to immediately deduct the cost of purchasing new equipment and property.
“The fact of the matter is we ought to be spending our time here getting Americans back to work, giving them a livable income and repairing the infrastructure of our country that is crumbling all around us,” Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, a Democratic leader, told MSNBC today. “We need to be trying to fix this immigration system that we have in this country that has not worked for years – and leaving little children on the border.”
“Nobody is trying to sit down and work with the other side,” he said.
Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-TX) told MSNBC there is just too much work to be done to justify leaving town now. “The date to go out on recess is entirely arbitrary and that can be changed,” he said. “This is one member of Congress who is willing to stay here until we get a solution. I do worry that at the end of the day although the House and Senate may pass bills, I’m not sure that we’re on the path to a solution” on the immigration crisis.
This article was updated at 11:30 p.m. on July 31, 2014.
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