After a three-day workweek and a flurry of finger-pointing, the bitterly divided 112th Congress called it quits late Friday until after the November elections, ending the shortest preelection legislative session in more than 50 years and capping off one of the least productive Congresses in modern history.
Left behind amid a pile of renamed post offices and symbolic gestures like designating Dec. 3 as “National Phenylketonuria Awareness Day” was a disturbingly complex to-do list of unfinished legislation, including an expiring Farm Bill for cash-strapped American farmers, postal reform to save the Postal Service from insolvency, any action on the Bush tax cuts, which will expire on Jan. 1 for all taxpayers, and a plan to avoid $1 trillion of across-the-board defense and domestic spending cuts, which this Congress put into motion last summer but now says will be catastrophic for the country.
Who gets the blame for all the dysfunction? It’s the one thing members of Congress agree on—it’s all the other guys’ fault.
On Friday, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went to the Senate floor to call the Senate’s failure to pass a budget or even one appropriations bill this year “a disgrace.” He went on to accuse Democrats of “treating the Senate floor like an extension of the Obama campaign for two years,” and scolded Democrats to “leave the politics to the campaign trail.”
But the day before, McConnell led a group of nearly 40 Republican senators in a bizarre round robin on the Senate floor, with each taking a turn whacking President Obama or the Senate Democrats for failing to lead on key issues.
Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called the GOP speeches a “dog and pony show,” while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the display an example of “hubris,” “arrogance,” “chutzpah,” and “nerve.” On Friday, Reid said it’s the GOP, not his Democratic caucus, who are to blame for Congress’s dysfunction. “If Republicans want to know why it’s been unproductive, they should take a look in the mirror.”
The mood on the House side was no better after a week in which House Republicans left the Farm Bill off the schedule, but called up votes on bills like the “Stop the War on Coal Act” and the “No More Solyndras Act,” legislation sure to go nowhere in the Senate but ripe for their GOP-friendly rallies on the campaign trail later this fall.
“What we are seeing this week is a convulsing end to a dismal Congress,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Friday morning as Republicans announced the House would be in session until just past noon. “This is simply irresponsible and Republicans ought to come back and finish their work, not cut and run and walk away from the American people.”
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi piled on, accusing Republican leaders of “a dereliction of duty” for recessing after just eight days in session since the beginning of August. “Stay here to work!” Pelosi yelled, as she led Democrats in a chant of “Work, Work, Work!” on the steps of the Capitol.
Completing the circular firing squad, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pointed the blame back at Senate Democrats when he was asked about all the work Congress was leaving undone until after the elections.
“Instead of having their demonstration on the House steps, maybe Democrats should have had it on the Senate steps,” Boehner said. “We have done our work. The Senate and president—where is their responsibility? Where is their leadership? It just doesn’t exist.”
Despite both parties’ cries for preelection progress, the reality behind the delays is coming from a confidence on both sides that the November elections will strengthen, not weaken, their party’s hand at the negotiating table when some of the most consequential legislation in a generation will be debated, and possibly agreed to.
Behind closed doors, Democratic senior staffers are more confident that their party will hold onto the White House and have improving prospects of picking up seats in the House and holding onto control of the Senate. Conversely, Republicans say a few lucky breaks could put the Senate in their control for the first time in six years, along with the House, improving their leverage in debt talks and spending negotiations even if the White House stays in Democratic hands.
In short, both sides see procrastination now as the path to getting their way later. The tactics make perfect sense in a capital where dysfunction has become standard operating procedure, but they are turning voters off in historic numbers. Gallup’s latest polls show just 13 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, the lowest number that Gallup has measured this late in an election year since it began asking the question.
One achievement that both sides can take credit for, though, is the absence of a potential government shutdown until at least next March, hardly a source of bragging rights in most congresses, but as Republicans and Democrats proved this week, the 112th Congress will go down in history in a league of its own.