No, Congress Won’t Get More Productive Come Fall

Standoffs more likely than deals this get-out-of-town week — and that won't change when they return

Fleeing the Capitol may be the best thing Congress can do in the cause of bipartisan self-preservation, writes David Hawkings. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Fleeing the Capitol may be the best thing Congress can do in the cause of bipartisan self-preservation, writes David Hawkings. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 11, 2016 at 5:00am

There’s really no way to avoid the public relations fiasco confronting Congress starting Friday, when its longest summer break in more than three decades will begin with hardly anything accomplished to ward off a “do-nothing” label for the summer.  

The final fortnight before the August recess customarily guarantees a whirlwind of deal-making on the major issues of the session, especially before the peak of campaign season. But nothing to really write home about , let alone claim for the history books, is on tap now.    

Instead the members will have to take cold comfort in the realization that they’re on track, maybe even a little ahead of schedule, to match their constituents’ exceedingly low expectations for this presidential year.  

When members return right after Labor Day, following the back-to-back political conventions and five weeks at home, they look to remain comprehensively stuck on legislation that at other times during the year seemed to be ripe for a “Mission Accomplished” headline.  

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The only ironic silver lining is that — safely assuming the budget wars get suspended until after the election — nothing will truly trap lawmakers in this self-made morass. They should have no trouble making their scheduled appointments with the exits, House members on Sept. 30 and senators a week later.

Fleeing the Capitol

Fleeing the Capitol as soon as practical may be the best thing Congress can do in the cause of bipartisan self-preservation. The place emptied out in the fourth week of September before the last presidential election, the next month was the most recent time Gallup pegged congressional approval above 20 percent, and that November, 90 percent of members who ran for re-election were victorious.  

That success rate will very probably get bested this year. Only nine senators and two-dozen House members at the moment appear in any danger of losing . Even if they’re all defeated, which is not going to happen, 93 percent of those seeking new terms will be returning in January.  

This week, the only certain legislative achievement is going to be a modest one-year updating of aviation programs, enacted in the nick of time to avoid air traffic snarls in the middle of summer vacation season.  

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There’s also a decent chance the Senate will send President Barack Obama two other measures, to combat serious mental illness and the deadly opioid epidemic. But the lopsided embrace both pieces of legislation received in the House last week reflected decisions to keep both of them free of the most far-reaching, controversial and costly possible provisions.  

Republicans are marketing those bills as part of a multifaceted response to rising violence in society. Whether that will be the only such responses before Election Day is an open question.  

Leaders of both parties committed themselves Friday to searching for a legislative response to the national divide on questions of policing and race. These have only grown more anguished since five Dallas police officers were shot dead and seven more wounded during demonstrations against police shootings of African Americans in Louisiana and Minnesota. But such bipartisan successes have been few and far between, as evidenced by last week’s collapse of efforts to find consensus on making it tougher for people on terrorist watch lists to buy weapons.  

Gun control has only been forced onto the agenda by Democrats in the past month. This summer’s other high-profile impasses are dooming legislation that for much of the year displayed strong prospects for success.  

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Disagreement about how much funding is needed to fight Zika means the government won’t have anything extra to spend against the mosquito-borne virus before fall, by which time the public health crisis may have peaked.  

Provisions that each side is insisting on, and which the other side cannot abide, have deadlocked talks on the most comprehensive rewrite of energy policies in a decade.  

A classic dispute between deregulatory Republicans and strong-government Democrats has hobbled legislation to accelerate approvals of new medicines and medical devices and boost federal research funding.  

Hardening anxieties on both sides of the law-and-order divide have sidetracked what might have been the most comprehensive rewrite since the 1990s of laws governing federal criminal punishment.

Spending priorities

Looming above all those standoffs is the biggest of all — and it’s been developing in plain sight for months. Incremental progress on appropriations bills notwithstanding, GOP infighting over the size of the budgetary pie, and Democratic disapproval of Republican spending priorities for the coming year, is as intense as ever.  

The inevitable workaround is a so-called continuing resolution, which wards off any government shutdown by keeping agencies on autopilot when the new fiscal year begins. In the falls of 2008 and 2012, Congress passed CRs extending the budget deadline a couple of months beyond the inauguration, essentially leaving it to the presidential and congressional victors to tackle the overdue fiscal fight.  

That’s highly likely to happen again this time, comfortably before the end of September, as the last “must pass” bill before Congress returns after Veterans Day.  

Completing the annual defense authorization bill, which Congress has done without fail since 1962, will be high on the agenda for the lame-duck session, as will the annual debate over extending, modifying or abandoning a raft of expiring tax provisions.    

Hillary Clinton’s election would boost prospects for the Senate GOP swallowing its pride and confirming the somewhat centrist Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  

Whether she or Donald Trump wins the presidency, however, a dead end seems assured for one of the biggest potential achievements of the 114th Congress. There will be no votes on approving the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade liberalization accord, which Obama helped negotiate but both his would-be successors have spurned.  

A comprehensive overhaul of customs laws, pushed to enactment this winter as way to boost TPP’s prospects, now stands among the marquee achievements of the year. It’s joined by a law that for the first time federally regulates tens of thousands of toxic chemicals in consumer goods, a rescue package for financially strapped Puerto Rico, a measure making it easier for Americans to obtain government records, and new sanctions designed to further isolate pugilistic North Korea.  

All those and Public Law 114-152, enacted in May, which elevated the bison to national mammal of the United States. Some members will choose, by default, to stand for re-election on that.  


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