Congress hits the road for five weeks with much left undone

WASHINGTON – It felt like the last day of school on Capitol Hill Friday as lawmakers bolted towards the exits after casting their final votes to begin a five week “district work period.”

In the plaza in front of the Capitol, aides sat in idling cars waiting to spirit their bosses to nearby airports.

It’s often traditional for the minority party to challenge the majority to stay in session during August on the grounds that not enough has been done, but this time there’s something to that argument as members of Congress begin the recess knowing that they left with even less than usual of their work completed.

In a fiery speech on the House floor Friday, 8th District Democrat Rick Nolan challenged GOP leaders to stay in session.

“We’re just slightly ahead of Genghis Khan and the Communist Party in popularity,” Nolan said. “It’s time that we put an end to this nonsense, put this Congress to work. Postpone or cancel this recess.”

Only four of the 12 annual spending bills have been completed by the House, all defense and security-related. A fifth bill to fund transportation and housing programs was unexpectedly pulled from consideration this week when it became clear to GOP leaders that the legislation lacked support from many Republican lawmakers because it cut too deeply to favored programs for moderate Republicans while conservatives wanted deeper cuts. Some sort of funding legislation needs to be passed by Sept. 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. It is increasingly likely Congress will have to pass a short term funding measure, especially since Congress is in session for only nine days in September.

The Senate has completed none of its budget bills after Republicans filibustered a Senate transportation and housing measure on Thursday.

Instead of finishing the budget, the House spent the week passing political messaging bills such as one to block the Internal Revenue Service from implementing the 2010 health care law, the 40th attempt by House Republicans to stop the law. With Democrats in charge of the Senate and White House, the bill is effectively dead on arrival.

Second District Republican John Kline defended the GOP’s strategy, noting that a few of the smaller repeal bills Republicans have passed in the House have eventually made it into law.

” So it’s not like we pass a bill and it goes away,” said Kline.

But 1st District Democrat Tim Walz, who voted against the bill, said that kind of legislation made the Congress look petty and uninterested in resolving bigger legislation such as the farm bill.

“This about making the president look bad, this not about doing America’s work,” Walz said.

The future of the farm bill also remains cloudy. The Senate passed a comprehensive bill while the House passed a “farm-only” farm bill that doesn’t include food stamp programs, a traditional component of the farm bill. The Senate has named negotiators for a conference committee with the House, including Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, but so far the House has shown little appetite for negotiating a bill before the legislation expires Sept. 30.

House Republicans now plan to introduce a bill to cut food stamp spending by $40 billion over the next decade, double the previous level they had proposed and a level that may make it impossible to negotiate a final deal acceptable to the Senate.

“I don’t know what the hell they’re trying to do other than placate the Wall Street Journal, the Club for Growth and Heritage, I don’t know what they’re up to,” said 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee who has spent much of past three years working with Republicans to try to pass a farm bill.

Another area where little progress is evident is overhauling the nation’s immigration laws. After more than six months of work, the Senate passed a comprehensive, bipartisan bill, but the House has decided to take the bill in small pieces with no timetable for completion.

And then there’s the debt ceiling. The federal government is expected to run out of borrowing authority later this fall and will default on its obligations unless Congress extends that authority.

In other words, members of Congress may get the next five weeks to recharge and reconnect with constituents, but when they return in September, don’t be surprised if the legislative process breaks down yet again.