WASHINGTON, D.C. – A wild windstorm swept through here on Saturday, tossing broken tree limbs, downing power lines and forcing thousands of suburbanites to eat dinner by candlelight. On Sunday, with the skies sunny and mostly clear, the oppressive heat that hung on all summer was finally gone and the cooler air of approaching autumn turned the nation’s capital into a pleasant place.
Then Monday arrived and with it came an infestation of congressmen and women. The lawmakers are taking a break from campaigning just long enough to make sure the government does not go broke by the end of the month. It’s nice of them to drop by to do the people’s work. This year, such a thing has been a rare occurrence.
The 112th Congress has spent a great deal of time on symbolic votes set up by Republicans to embarrass Democrats and vice-versa -- votes on bills that have no chance of passing but force opposition members to go on record with a vote that can be used against them in re-election campaigns. An example is how House Republicans have tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act – a.k.a. Obamacare – 33 times, knowing their effort would die in the Senate, but doing it anyway to score political points.
The list of accomplishments for this Congress is short and risible. The lawmakers earned an easy feather in their cap by shaving 2 percentage points off the payroll tax for the last two years. However, with deficits mounting higher by the second, the expectation is the tax holiday will not be extended past Dec. 31.
Lawmakers also managed to agree on raising the debt ceiling last year – but only after an exercise in brinkmanship between Democrats and Republicans that prompted Standard & Poor’s to downgrade the U.S. credit rating. And the provisional budget arrangement that came out of that debacle set up automatic draconian cuts that will kick in at the turn of the year if a new deal is not reached.
On Tuesday, another credit company, Moody’s, announced it would also downgrade the nation’s credit rating if Congress and the president failed to put America’s fiscal house in better order by early 2013. Nevertheless, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) is telling reporters the chances for a new budget deal are not good.
“I’m not confident at all,” he said at a press conference in the Capitol on Tuesday. “The House has done its job, both on the sequester and on the looming tax hikes that’ll cost our economy 700,000 jobs. The Senate at some point has to act. On both of these, where’s the president? Where’s the leadership? Absent without leave.”
Senate Democrats are sure to respond and blame the impasse on Boehner and his tea party-driven caucus.
The public has seldom held Congress in high esteem, although, briefly in 2002 the institution’s approval rating shot up to 84%. For the 30 years up to 2005, Congress got a thumbs-up from an average of 40% of voters. Since 2010, though, approval has sunk to dismal levels, averaging a mere 17% on the positive side and sinking as low as 10% in at least one poll, tying the popularity rating of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez among American citizens. Even the dreaded Internal Revenue Service is far more beloved with a 40% approval rating.
The 112th Congress has passed far fewer bills than any Congress in recent years. Our current crop of lawmakers may, in fact, have achieved the lowest productivity of any Congress in modern history.
One would have to go back to the pre-Civil War period to find a batch of national legislators as deeply divided and rigid in their positions. Compromise is now a dirty word and, as the debt ceiling fight proved, there is a large faction among the House Republicans who would close the government and bring down the economy rather than vote for the tiniest of tax increases.
And so this sorry crowd has slinked back to Washington for a few days to see if they can do the absolute minimum – pass a continuing resolution that will allow the federal government to pay its obligations for a few more months. Then, they will all head back home to continue campaigning for re-election.
The mystery is why they want their jobs at all.