Divided Congress settles for below-the-radar bills

By Joan Lowy

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, March 25 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

"I am one of those who say states should take the lion's share of this," Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., said in an interview. "Right now 80 percent of the road repair and the road reconstruction is done by the federal government, 20 percent is done by the municipalities. At some point that has to turn around."

But even some Republicans argue that Congress would be abandoning its authority in handing over a job to the states. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who is working with GOP leaders to round up votes for the transportation bill, frequently cites Article I Section 8 of the Constitution, which says Congress has the power to establish post roads.

"What we are doing here is consistent with the Constitution," he told fellow members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a meeting on the bill last month.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in a conference call with reporters Friday, pointed out that it was Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who put together the national highway system.

To suggest most federal transportation programs be turned over to states is "an abdication of a couple of hundred years of federal investment, and particularly the last 60 years of investment in our highways," said Villaraigosa, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "That argument just doesn't meet the needs of the times."

The House is scheduled to vote Monday night on a short-term, 90-day extension. President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., say they want the House to back the Senate bill, but that is highly unlikely. Faced with the deadline, the Senate is expected to back the temporary extension.

Punting on a thorny issue is an all-too-familiar step for many lawmakers, who are frustrated with a congressional period they say is short on accomplishments. Last year, Congress careened from one self-made crisis to the next, from keeping the government funded to raising the limit on its credit card. A grand bargain between President Barack Obama and Boehner to tackle entitlement programs, taxes and spending collapsed last summer.

All told, the House passed 384 bills last year, the Senate 402, according to the Congressional Record. Of those totals, just 56 House bills and only 24 Senate bills became law.

This year, Congress has completed trade agreements, patent reform and a bill for modernizing an outdated air traffic control system. It also extended last year's Social Security tax cut until the end of 2012 — as well as long-term unemployment benefits — and headed off a cut in Medicare fees that threatened to have doctors turning away elderly patients en masse.

Lawmakers suggest fear is a factor in preferring a risk-adverse congressional agenda. Some stalwart conservative Republicans have drawn tea party challengers this year over their vote last summer to borrow another $2 trillion.

"People say to me, 'How come you guys can't work together?" said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is retiring after 32 years in the House. "And I said, 'How easy do you think it would be for me to come to an agreement with Michele Bachmann?' So the question is you're saying they're all Michele Bachmann. No, half of them are Michele Bachmann and half of them are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann."

Republicans argue that Reid wants to avoid tough votes for his most vulnerable Democratic incumbents and preserve Obama's and Democrats' campaign narrative about a "do-nothing Congress."

"It's part of the majority leader's electoral strategy," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.

In the meantime, public approval of Congress has remained in the low double digits. In an Associated Press-GfK survey after the debt ceiling fight, approval was at 12 percent. It's inched up to 19 percent in a survey last month after a deal was struck on extending the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits.

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