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Congressional Horse Collapses Before It Reaches the Barn

Watching Congress rush to adjournment is a little like watching a horse break into a gallop upon seeing the barn. The novice rider has little control and is simply advised to hang on and duck at the threshold.

[IMGCAP(1)]Members similarly have little control over the legislative schedule in the final days of a session and are advised to trust their leaders to get them home swiftly and safely. Just as the bucket of oats awaiting the horse is what quickens its pace, the promise of being able to claim legislative accomplishments back home whips Members into grateful obedience. The only things getting trampled in this stampede for the exits are the regular order, transparency and the public purse strings.

The first session of the 111th Congress appeared to be building to just such a frenzied and productive climax in the final weeks leading up to the Friday targeted adjournment. Six long overdue appropriations bills were bundled into a $446.8 billion omnibus bill and passed (this was not your grandma’s minibus).

The final, must-pass spending bill for the Defense Department was separately slated to carry other big-ticket items, including a long-term increase in the public debt limit, unemployment insurance, food stamps, aid to state and local governments, the USA PATRIOT Act, and possibly a massive jobs creation bill.

A funny thing happened on the way to that spectacular finish. The House pulled up stakes and went home two days early, after passing by a wide margin the Defense spending bill along with short-term extensions of nine expiring laws until Feb. 28.

The originally planned $925 billion increase in the debt limit to $13 trillion would have carried the government beyond the November elections. Instead, the House passed a short-term, $290 billion increase that will have to be revisited in February. Some 39 Democrats still defected on the 218-214 final passage vote.

Ironically, a separate, $154 billion jobs package squeaked by the House, 217-212, with 38 Democrats voting against it. The bill was slapped together at the last minute without the benefit of committee hearings, deliberations or a report, and it was designed primarily as a face-saving, conscience-salving device. There was no expectation the Senate would take it up this year.

The House Democratic Caucus was not exactly exuding holiday exuberance and gratitude for being showered with all these gifts nine days before Christmas. A 15-minute quorum call was stretched into 45 minutes as the majority whip team tried to corral enough grumpy campers to pass the debt limit bill.

So why did the leadership put its troops through this strange forced march in a single day? There are several plausible explanations. First, the House is so far ahead of the Senate in passing the session’s priority bills that it made no sense to hang around. The health care reform bill, which both chambers originally planned to wrap up before August so they could reconcile their differences in September, did not pass the House until November. At this writing, the Senate was still slow-walking its health care bill to Christmas.

The financial regulatory overhaul, which the president had beseeched Congress to pass this year, finally passed the House in December. An even more onerous Senate bill was nowhere near ready for prime time.

The climate change bill, which the president had hoped to sign in time for bragging rights at the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen this month, passed the House last June. But the Senate was wary of even testing the political climate for change in the middle of a recession, let alone of doing something about it.

A related explanation for the early getaway by the House is that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) planned to fly to Copenhagen late Wednesday with a delegation of 21 Members, and their spouses and staffs, coinciding with the president’s arrival. The conference was scheduled to wrap up its work Friday, so delay was not an option.

The House Rules Committee was consequently pressed into emergency session late Tuesday to consider a special rule for the four pieces of the getaway ticket — defense, debt limit, jobs and a continuing appropriations resolution (to permit the Pentagon to operate beyond Friday). The problem was that all the pieces of that puzzle were not in place by Tuesday evening, so the Rules Committee reported a waiver resolution that would allow it to clear the package Wednesday morning for floor action without needing a two-thirds vote for same-day consideration of the four-part rule.

The very fact that the four items were brought up under the same rule but as separate measures, and not as part of the Defense money bill, leads us to the main reason for the hurry-up, stopgap, kick-the-can-down-the-road Wednesday blitzkrieg. The majority leadership knew it did not have the votes to pass the originally planned mega-defense bill with so many controversial items rolled into it. Republicans said they would not support it if the debt limit increase was in the bill, 23 anti-war Democrats would vote against it because of the level of military funding, and enough fiscally conservative Democrats were leery about increasing the debt limit and spending tens of billions more on another stimulus bill given increasing public concerns over rising deficits.

The four-part fallback plan wasn’t so much a divide-and-conquer strategy as it was a cobble-and-pray ploy. The session ended with the bang of the Speaker’s gavel, but legislatively it ended with a whimpering whinny as the horse collapsed before it reached the barn. Next session’s truncated election-year schedule could spur Congress all the way to the barn and a fuller bucket of oats by October, but don’t bet on it.

Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

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