House Breakneck Pace Hits Brakes

Posted March 13, 2009 at 6:33pm

With the nation teetering on the brink, House lawmakers clocked in for four days of work last week.

Amid some signs of life in the markets, the headlines also carried now-familiar grim news: that American families lost nearly a fifth of their wealth last year; that General Electric, once the gold standard of American corporate might, saw its credit rating downgraded for the first time in 50 years; and that the Chinese, the top holder of U.S. debt, expressed concern about the safety of Treasury bonds.

On the House floor, Members of Congress named five federal buildings, failed to clear a year-old package of public lands bills, passed a water pollution measure and paused to honor the Greek letter pi. By early afternoon Thursday, they were streaming for the exits to catch flights home.

Welcome back to regular order.

Democrats have been racing at a whirlwind clip since the start of the 111th Congress, using their expanded majorities to muscle through a slew of big-ticket items: a $787 billion stimulus package, a measure expanding children’s health insurance, a bill to address the foreclosure crisis and an omnibus spending package to fund government operations.

Last week, as they crossed the 50-day mark of Barack Obama’s presidency, lawmakers and staff took a deep breath and quit emergency footing for a more deliberative pace.

Two key indicators suggested Members have earned some room to slow down. Public approval of Congress has rocketed 20 points since the start of the year to 39 percent, a four-year high, a Gallup Poll found. And following a continuing cascade of bleak economic news, the stock market last week rallied on hope of a turnaround to post a 677-point, four-day gain.

After a bruising opening session, House Democratic lawmakers and aides indicated some relief to see the action shift from floor votes to committee hearings.

“It is a relief,— Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said. “Anytime you start a session, legislative bodies start out at a slow pace and build to a crescendo. This time, we started in reverse.—

“We’ve set a breakneck pace for this Congress, with make-or-break votes every week,— one aide to a senior Democrat said. “Let’s take a moment to assess what we’ve done and make sure it’s sinking in.—

That means events back home to sell the early successes of the economic stimulus bill, among others. “We want to ensure that Members have time back in districts, meeting with their constituents and talking about what we’re doing here,— a Democratic leadership aide said. “We’re certainly going to be here as much as we need to be to get our work done, and I think the calendar we have strikes that balance.—

This week brings more suspensions, a national service bill and, possibly, a measure to give the District of Columbia a voting Member in the House and another crack at the public lands package. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) signaled last week that until major legislation is ready for floor action, the parade of suspensions will continue. “We will try to have voted every day we’re here,— he said. “We find it has a salutary effect on quorums.—

The downshift in Congressional gears has not gone unnoticed by Republicans, who have already modulated their critique of the majority: Where Democrats were high-handed in fast-tracking measures out of the gate and cutting the GOP out of negotiations, they are now blind to the national crisis raging around them.

“It’s time for us to focus on the emergency that we have in front of us,— House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters last week. “Do we really have time to spend three days doing suspension bills on the floor of the House while Rome burns?—

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said the situation was particularly galling with regard to what he called the absence of a clear plan for the financial markets. “It just seems like we’re working such short days and producing very little,— he said. “It’s embarrassing.—

Democrats, many of whom were riled by Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) efforts earlier this year to move measures outside the normal committee process, said they are cheered by the return to regular order, even if it means a lull in floor action for the time being.

“I think we have to be thoughtful how we move from here,— said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), a top member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. “I have no problem with a light agenda on the floor if we’re getting our work done behind the scenes.—

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), co-chairwoman of the liberal Progressive Caucus, agreed. “We’re going back to doing things the right way, and it takes longer,— she said.

If the pace of progress is not a concern, the scope and shape of it is. Obama is already facing pushback from different factions of the party on a host of fronts — from the small print of his budget, expected on the House floor the week of March 30, to whether the transformative change that he has called for is even possible.

“The president has bitten off a lot, and we’ll see how much we can digest,— Cardoza said.

Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), also a Blue Dog, said he and Democrats on the Budget Committee raised the issue with Obama at a meeting last week. The president, Boyd said, made clear that he was committed to his agenda but would be flexible in working with Congress on the particulars.

Obama and his team have argued that an ambitious agenda is necessary, precisely because of the challenges facing the country, but the president last week publicly reined in expectations for what could be accomplished this year. In a talk with corporate chief executive officers, Obama signaled efforts to reform health care and energy may only get started this year.

But Norm Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and Roll Call contributing writer who in the past has decried Congressional dysfunction, said he is optimistic lawmakers will knock out a historic amount of legislation in this Congress.

“The reason Congressional approval has doubled in the last two months is they’re starting to get some stuff through,— he said.

Steven T. Dennis and Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.