These are not happy holidays for anyone on Capitol Hill except perhaps lobbyists paid by the hour. Both the House and Senate may be in session next week — Christmas week — and they could be back for New Year’s week as well.
The frantic 2009 endgame is the result of a hyper-ambitious policy agenda, bad calendar management and excessive Senate partisanship that has slowed business in that chamber to a slow crawl.
President Barack Obama decided, even before he was inaugurated, that he would not merely use his first year in office to cope with the Great Recession but remake substantial portions of the U.S. economy, including health, energy, education and financial services.
The House has passed versions of three of the four big reforms — climate change, health care and financial regulation — but the Senate is struggling to process just health care this year.
Meantime, despite Democratic control of both chambers, Congress once again could not process in regular order the 12 appropriations bills necessary to fund the federal government. An omnibus bill containing six bills was jammed through each chamber over the past week.
It’s hardly the first time this has happened. According to Senate Historian Don Ritchie, the last time Congress passed all of the individual appropriations bills before a fiscal year started was in 1994.
But when Obama signed the fiscal 2009 omnibus bill in March, he declared that the legislation “must mark an end to the old way of doing business and the beginning of a new era of responsibility and accountability.—
No new era has dawned. This year’s omnibus contained three major spending bills “airdropped— into the House-Senate conference report that were never debated or voted on by either chamber. Moreover, the bill contained 4,452 earmarks totaling $3.7 billion and increased domestic discretionary spending by 12.5 percent.
This may be justified in a recession, but it comes at a time when, across the political spectrum, there’s deep concern about an explosion of federal debt.
That concern is complicating the December endgame. Senators, such as Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), are insisting on a commission to propose debt-reducing policies that Congress would have to vote up or down.
House Blue Dogs are insisting on passing a statutory pay-as-you-go requirement to reduce deficits. But Senate moderates think the House PAYGO bill is too porous and House leaders don’t want to give up legislative authority over spending.
So, here we sit, a week away from Christmas, with a lot of must-do work still to do, work that should have been done a lot earlier.