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Crises Mount, House Still Won’t Act

Lawmakers show no urgency on any major issue

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., conducts a news conference after a meeting of House Republicans in the Capitol where he addressed the importance of tackling substance abuse. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., conducts a news conference after a meeting of House Republicans in the Capitol where he addressed the importance of tackling substance abuse. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Governing by crisis has become the norm in Congress in recent years, but so far this year even that hasn’t happened.  

Puerto Rico is on the verge of economic collapse, an average of 78 people are dying every day from opioid overdoses, and mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus have been found in 30 states. But Congress has shown no urgency about addressing those issues.  

Maybe that’s not surprising from a Republican majority that can’t even adopt a nonbinding budget resolution after months of “family” discussions.  

“That was the first real test of whether Ryan could manage the Freedom Caucus,” Kenneth Gold, director of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University, said. “And the answer is a resounding no.”  

American University professor David Lublin said there are pretty much two ways to pass legislation in the House these days: You get Democrats to agree with a minority Republicans or you get a supermajority of Republicans.  

The former is an option Republican leaders try to avoid because they know it will anger their members, who will complain that they gave up too much to the other side. But the latter is difficult too, given the divisions among the GOP conference.  

Legislation to help Puerto Rico restructure its debt and get back on sound fiscal footing is the latest victim of that dynamic. The bill couldn’t even move forward in committee as scheduled last week because it lacked support from members of both parties.  

Puerto Rico is also a good example of the House’s lack of urgency. Late last year Ryan had set a goal of having the House pass legislation to aid Puerto Rico by the end of March, but that timeline has now slipped to at least May.  

That is also the targeted schedule for the House to pass legislation addressing the opioid epidemic.  

The Senate, which typically moves more slowly than the House, passed legislation to promote opioid treatment and prevention a month ago and senators have been critical of the House for not following suit.  

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., disputes the idea that the House is taking too long.  

“We’re acting pretty fast,” he said, noting that the House is looking at dozens of bills in multiple committees of jurisdiction.  

“We shouldn’t just take the Senate bill. There’s plenty of room to accommodate the good ideas from both sides and get it done.”  

If the House does take up the opioid prevention measures soon, they’re likely to receive bipartisan support. Still, Democrats are quick to blame Republicans for Congress’s failure to address other the major issues plaguing the country.  

“This just seems to be a Congress that just wants to say no; no to the budget, no to appropriate Zika funding, no to Puerto Rico, no to immigration, no to gun safety,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. “We know the votes are there for all of these initiatives.”  

Intra-party divisions among House Republicans is not a new phenomenon. Speaker John A. Boehner struggled to manage the far right flank, too, but he would exert power when needed to push through legislation.  

Ryan has taken a more hands-off approach in an effort to restore regular order — that is, to have bills marked up in committee and amended on the floor. But that hasn’t produced much legislative action either.  

“I think regular order has quietly left the building,” Lublin said.  

Democratic news conference Tuesday on stalemate in House
Part of the reason is that Republicans and Democrats still don’t care to work together on most things.  

“Everything is politicized,” Gold said, against the backdrop of a lame duck president looking to cement his legacy, a Republican Senate trying to maintain its majority and a divided House Republican conference.  

It’s especially unsurprising for Congress to leave things undone in a presidential election year, as lawmakers want to avoid doing anything to distract from their party’s political agenda, said Molly Reynolds, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution.  

Perhaps that’s why Republican leaders at the start of 2016 set their sights on passing spending bills in lieu of loftier goals.  

But the prospects for passing even appropriations bills are dim at this point, Gold said. “I don’t think they can get anything done on anything.”  

The presidential campaign has been somewhat helpful to Ryan in that it’s distracted attention away from continued problems in the House, Lublin said.  

“Ryan’s focus now is on managing the convention,” Gold added. “And I think he deeply regrets leaving Ways and Means.”  

Contact McPherson at and follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson.

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