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Congress breaks for 5 weeks, but much work undone

By Donna Cassata

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Aug. 4 2012 7:16 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Dec. 22, 2011 file photo, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Lawmakers headed home for a five-week break with a laundry list of uncompleted work and little to show for the past year and a half except an eye-popping amount of dissatisfaction _ nearly 80 percent of Americans are unhappy with them. The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate have set record lows for production and record highs for dysfunction.

Evan Vucci, File, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Congress' performance matches its approval rating — abysmal.

Lawmakers headed home for a five-week break with a lengthy list of uncompleted work and little to show for the past year and a half except an eye-popping amount of dissatisfaction: Nearly 80 percent of Americans are unhappy with them. The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate have set record lows for production and record highs for dysfunction.

Partisanship and election-year politics have left a drought-stricken nation wondering if new help will ever come and the U.S. Postal Service uncertain about its solvency. Some $110 billion in automatic, across-the-board cuts are due to hit military and domestic programs on Jan. 2, yet no bipartisan solution is in sight or even under discussion by those who really matter.

At the same time, President George W. Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans expire, threatening to send a sluggish economy right back into recession.

The standoff is what happens when a bitterly divided government mixes with election-year politics to throw sand in the gears of official Washington. The tea party-dominated House and a Senate controlled by Democrats struggling to keep their narrow majority in November view each other with a palpable disdain.

House Speaker John Boehner, who came to Washington in 1991, bluntly described the divide that has made consensus a rare commodity.

"The American people are probably more polarized now than any time since I've been here," the Ohio Republican told reporters. "And as a result we see that polarization reflected here in the halls of Congress. And even though both sides have some sharply different views and ideologies, our job is still to find the common ground."

But common ground is scarce. This is a Congress that can't do the big stuff while even the small stuff, such as a one-year extension of student loan subsidies that passed in June, makes them sweat.

Congress stumbled out of Washington for a five-week vacation one day early on Thursday on a typical note: a GOP filibuster in the Senate of a bipartisan cybersecurity bill and the House's abandonment of a one-year extension, as Republican leaders had planned, of food and farm policy.

Senate Republicans were unhappy about being denied a chance to amend the cybersecurity bill. House Republicans were unable to find party unity on food stamps and farm subsidies

The House settled for a paltry restoration of expired disaster programs for livestock producers and tree farmers. The Senate wouldn't do even that, demanding instead a full five-year farm bill with 80 percent of it, or about $400 billion, devoted to food stamps.

More broadly, just 151 laws have been enacted in 19 months; more than two dozen of them were to rename post offices and courthouses, or add individuals to the Smithsonian board. By comparison, the previous Congress enacted 383 laws with President Barack Obama in the White House and Democrats controlling Capitol Hill.

Even in 2007-08, when Republican Bush was president and Democrats ran Congress, 460 laws were enacted.

"They think compromise is a dirty word when compromise is necessary to get things done in the era of divided government," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

A poll last month by CBS News and The New York Times found Congress with a 12 percent approval rating and 79 percent disapproval score.

Lawmakers will return in September for what promises to be an abbreviated pre-election session with two main items of business.

Most important is a six-month spending bill to keep the government running through March and prevent any possibility of a politically explosive government shutdown before the election. Not one of the 13 must-pass spending bills has been completed and the new budget year begins Oct. 1.

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