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Congress Leaves Town Under a Dark Cloud

To paraphrase Shakespeare, nothing so becomes Congress like its leaving. Members of Congress apparently agree that their leaving will become them since they prevailed upon their leaders to let them go home a week earlier than originally scheduled.

[IMGCAP(1)]As a student in 1879, Woodrow Wilson wrote favorably of such exits when he observed, “Both State and National legislatures are looked upon with nervous suspicion, and we hail an adjournment of Congress as a temporary immunity from danger.”

In the present case, the adjournment is not final and therefore any immunity from danger is fleeting. Congress will return for a lame-duck session Nov. 15 to finish some of the business that it did not have the courage to tackle this month — little things such as extending tax cuts and funding the government.

What we’ve been treated to instead this month is a suspension-fest in the House — noncontroversial bills benefiting individual Members politically and their districts honorifically (can you play, “Name that Post Office?”). Dozens of suspension bills have been launched — a flotilla of marshmallows bobbing on a syrupy sea of strawberry tea to sate the sweet tooth of sugar-crazed constituencies. Suspension bills account for 85 percent of all laws enacted thus far in the 111th Congress, up from 50 percent in the 103rd Congress. The only nonsuspension bills passed this month have been a small-business jobs bill and a rural energy conservation measure.

The Senate attempt to belatedly pass the annual defense authorization bill became a magnet for Republican opposition over embedded provisions repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and providing a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.

The filibuster threat was cemented by Majority Leader Harry Reid’s strategy to “fill the amendment tree,” thereby blocking any Republican amendments. The Nevada Democrat even lost a couple of his own Members on the vote to invoke cloture. But the political game was played out as a last-minute sop to two important Democratic constituencies (at least in Nevada) — gays and Hispanics.

House leaders could argue they were simply waiting around for the Senate to catch up with all the bills it passed (about 240 House-passed suspension bills remain lodged in the Senate). But those are small potatoes compared to the massive failure of this Congress to adopt a budget resolution or any of the 12 regular appropriations bills.

This is the first time since enactment of the Budget Act in 1974 that the House has not adopted a concurrent resolution on the budget. And it’s very unusual for no regular appropriations bills to be signed into law by Oct. 1. The Constitution may not be broken, but Congress’ constitutional purse strings have been seriously tattered.

Congress’ fiscal failings are symptomatic of a larger affliction besetting the institution, and that is its paralytic fear of doing anything that might upset voters. The fear is prompted by cross-cutting political winds that immobilize the system.

On the one hand, voters are most troubled about the lack of progress on jobs and the economy despite billions of dollars spent on recovery projects and bailout efforts. On the other hand, the same voters are appalled by astronomical deficit and debt numbers occasioned by these same anti-recession measures. Consequently, Members are simultaneously being blamed by an ambivalent public for doing too much and too little — or at least of not doing enough of the right thing (whatever that might be).

How will Congress’ failings play out at the polls on Nov. 2? Democrats had hoped their substantial legislative record would argue for keeping them in the majority. Yet, because the country remains skeptical about the merits of the health care bill, the stimulus projects and financial reforms, many Democrats are not touting these achievements. Others, in marginal districts, are simply running away from them and the president.

Meanwhile, Republicans finally unveiled their “Pledge to America” last week, hailed in their media advisory as “a new governing agenda for the 111th Congress.” If that’s not a typo, they are planning a more ambitious lame-duck session than they complain Democrats intend to spring on them.

The GOP agenda is being attacked by critics as being short on specifics about spending cuts and long on recycling old planks such as tax cuts for everyone forever and “constitutional authority statements” for bills (already a House rule). Still, Republicans are to be commended for laying out a positive platform to counter their image as “the party of no.”

It’s hard to see a silver lining in either party’s end game of scurrying out of town under a darkening cloud of deadlock and drift — except that it gives incumbents more time and fodder to campaign against the awful system (of which they are a part).

While the 111th Congress did produce an impressive list of legislative accomplishments, it is clear they are not resonating with mainstream voters. Whichever party controls the next Congress should be sufficiently chastened by clear warning signs that people are fed up with both parties and expect real change in the system and the policies that it produces.

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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