Even if the public doesn’t appreciate it, the 111th Congress has been enormously productive. But the prospects of getting anything much done in this pre-election work period get dimmer by the day — raising the question: Why is Congress even here?
In fact, to the extent that Members are here — the House has just a Wednesday-through-Friday workweek this week for the first time since 2008 — their activities are built around the elections. They are attending fundraisers as much as attending to legislative business.
Congress returned from the August break with an extensive list of things to do before leaving town in mid-October for official full-time campaigning. But the only item that’s certain of passage is long-stalled aid to small businesses, made possible last week when two Senate Republicans broke ranks to support the measure.
Senate Democratic leaders have pushed for action on a defense authorization bill — primarily to end the ban on openly gay service members and allow children of illegal immigrants to serve in the military and go to college. But Republicans seem determined to block it.
The ain’t-gonna-happen list goes on and on: food safety legislation made urgent by the recall of 500 million eggs this summer over possible salmonella contamination, a bill to restart federally supported stem cell research and all 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the federal government for fiscal 2011.
In the absence of appropriations, Congress will pass a continuing resolution to keep the government from shutting down.
Then there’s the biggest issue of all: what to do about tax cuts due to expire at the end of the year. “Uncertainty” has become the buzzword of the day — it’s believed partly responsible for sluggish hiring and investment — but it appears Congress will keep the uncertainty going into a lame-duck session after the elections.
Voters deserve to know before the elections what their Senators and Representatives favor as the appropriate level of taxes. They also deserve to know whether Congress will decide this matter in a timely fashion. Congress surely will not let all of President George W. Bush’s cuts expire — raising taxes on everyone — so it’s a job that ought to be done promptly.
Few Democrats seem to be touting the accomplishments of the 111th Congress, but they are actually remarkable, including the $787 billion stimulus that is at least partly responsible for ending the Great Recession, credit card reform, health care reform, financial services reform and expansion of the student loan program.
The public disapproves of Congress’ performance by 77 percent to 18 percent, according to a Gallup poll, and disapproves of all the big initiatives except financial services reform.
Nonetheless, it’s up to Congress to finish its work — and not in a chaotic lame-duck session, when the difficulty of reaching agreement could be even more difficult than it is now.
Retiring Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said to Congressional Quarterly: “People are fearful and angry. They’re wondering, What in the world are those people in Washington doing? … What about us, what about our problems?'”
If Congress can’t get anything done in September and October, it might as well go home, even if it means reinforcing voters’ suspicions that it doesn’t care a lick about them.