Lawmakers? Ha! Debt Obsession Tables Urgent Action
Policy + Politics

Lawmakers? Ha! Debt Obsession Tables Urgent Action

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Appropriations bills necessary for the orderly operation of the federal government are stalled. Nominations to key government posts are languishing. A partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration forcing the furlough of more than 4,000 workers is costing the government $30 million a day in lost tax collections. And when’s the last time anyone heard anything about immigration reform

The bitter fight between the White House and Republican lawmakers has sucked up all the air in Congress, for the most part leaving critical issues unaddressed. Just about any time a member of Congress meets with reporters, it’s to discuss the raging debt ceiling controversy,  and nothing else.

Crucial trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama are unlikely to be ratified before Congress departs for its August recess (whenever that may be given the intractable debate over debt ceiling legislation). Even tweaks to the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul legislation approved last year have been put  on the legislative back burner, though work may be going on behind the scenes.

The 112th Congress is on course to be one of the least productive in recent memory, as measured by votes taken, bills turned into laws and nominees approved. The Chicago Tribune reports that this Congress is underperforming even the “do-nothing” Congress of 1948, as President Harry Truman dubbed it.

Congress has sent President Obama just 23 bills so far this year, including three appointments to the Smithsonian Board of Regents and five bills to name courthouses and post offices. Almost all the others have been making “continuing appropriations” to keep agencies funded.

While Congress has been “working” five day weeks and some weekends lately, what that really means is that a handful of congressional leaders are negotiating deals to try to lift the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling and reduce the deficit before next Tuesday’s deadline.  The rest of the members of the House and Senate have been reduced to twiddling their thumbs waiting for the group to come back to them and test the latest deficit/debt proposals. So far, there have been only thumbs down and a deluge of comments to the media – but all on one topic.

Can’t Congress walk and chew gum at the same time? Not really, says Julian Zelizer, a Princeton history and public affairs professor.  “If Congress is handling anything of this significance, civil rights or the debt ceiling bill, it’s going to crowd out discussion of everything else,” Zelizer said.

Here are some of the most important things that aren’t getting done on Capitol Hill:

  • Ending a partial shutdown of the FAA. Controllers and air safety inspectors are still working but construction projects and even fee and tax collections are on hold. The dispute is over differing versions of House and Senate-passed legislation, but leaders have been unable to devote the time to untangling the differences or passing stopgap legislation – even though such stop gaps have been approved 20 times already. 
  • Ratifying languishing treaties with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.  These treaties, which were negotiated during the Bush administration, are considered essential by the business community now that the European Union has concluded its own deals, particularly with South Korea. Senate action on them likely will slip into September. That’s despite pressure for action from both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the White House.
  • Breaking logjam on key federal post nominations. President Obama has complained that Congress is slow to act on some of his nominees. Moreover, political and ideological differences have held up some fights, as was the case last week when Obama passed over Elizabeth Warren to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and instead nominated  former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray. But even Cordray’s nomination isn’t safe because of Republican efforts to dilute the strength of the bureau.

    Nobel laureate Peter Diamond, nominated three times by Obama to serve on the Federal Reserve's board of governors, last month asked the White House to withdraw his nomination in the face of Republican opposition.

    Even routine appointments are having trouble. For example, The Senate Banking Committee was holding hearings on Marty Gruenberg to serve as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Thomas Curry to serve as head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and Roy Woodall to serve as an insurance expert on the Financial Stability Oversight Council. Republicans are blocking the appointments in the continuing dispute over the consumer bureau.

  • Passing next year’s appropriations bills. The House has passed a handful of the 13 appropriations bills needed to fund the government in fiscal 2012, but the Senate has completed work on none of them. The House has allowed almost unlimited amendments to their appropriations bills in so-called “open rules.” This comports with the pledge of House leaders to allow more participation in House debates, which has made it harder to close a deal.
  • Doing something about immigration reform. Obama campaigned on it, but reform of the immigration laws have been put on the back burner. Republicans don’t seem anxious to tackle the issue, and have stood in the way of the proposed  DREAM act, which would have allowed illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they turned 16 the chance to become citizens.

Much of the problem, obviously, results from a divided government in which conservative Republican activists in the House clash with liberal Democrats in the Senate and the White House. It could also be a reaction to the bill-passing spree of the last session, when Democrats controlled both chambers and the presidency. During that period, Congress approved major initiatives including the stimulus package, the children’s health program reauthorization, and the health care overhaul. But the lack of progress on pressing issues evokes baseball manager Casey Stengel about his 1962 Mets (record: 40-120):  “Can’t anybody here play this game?”