WASHINGTON — Before Congress left on its annual five-week recess Friday, Minnesota Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan went to the House floor to argue lawmakers shouldn’t leave town, that they should stay in session and consider a slate of bills on which the House has yet to act.
“I’ve been a business owner, responsible for the bottom line and for getting things done in my business,” he said. “I’ve got to tell you, if we weren’t getting the job done, we wouldn’t be going on a five-week recess, vacation or whatever it is you want to call it.”
Nolan’s appeal was unsuccessful, of course, and just before 3 p.m. Friday, the House adjourned until September, bringing to a close the first seven months of what has been a historically unproductive session of Congress.
Through Friday, the 113th Congress has enacted 22 public laws, just off the pace set by the 112th Congress, which was the least productive in recent history. Congress has spent much of the last few months publicly bickering — about heady issues, to be sure, everything from the Affordable Care Act to NSA surveillance programs — and taking largely symbolic votes, especially in the House, but it has little to show for it, at least so far.
“Last Congress was unproductive, but this Congress is on track to make that Congress look productive,” University of Minnesota professor and congressional scholar Kathryn Pearson said. “Public approval of Congress is incredibly low, and it’s easy to understand why, because they’re not doing the essentials of their job.”
That’s not to say Congress has done nothing … just that it hasn’t done too much of anything worth noting (the last bill President Obama signed into law, for example, was to “rename section 219(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 as the Kay Bailey Hutchison Spousal IRA”). In fact, much of what it has and hasn’t done the last few months has set up bigger battles for down the road.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of what lawmakers have been up to this summer, and how it’ll come back into play this fall.
Setting up a budget fight
In January, Congress passed a bill that essentially delayed a massive fight over raising the limit on federal debt until this fall. That means Congress will take up both its yearly wrangling over the annual federal budget (set to expire on Sept. 30) and its occasional (and recently bitter) battle over federal debt within just a few weeks of each other this fall.
The most pressing topic is the budget. Lawmakers have to approve their 12 annual budget bills before Sept. 30 or risk a government shutdown, but the process has been turned on its head by sequestration, the across-the-board budget cuts that kicked in this spring. Democrats want to roll back the cuts; Republicans want to keep the cuts in place (except for defense) and in some cases, go deeper.
The positions are untenable, as evidenced by last week’s saga over the Transportation/Housing and Urban Development funding bill: The Senate version boosted spending over current levels, but Republicans filibustered it; the House version included cuts so deep that Republican leadership pulled it from the floor before the vote, worried that even members of their own party would oppose it.
Lawmakers will almost certainly need to pass a short-term budget bill to keep the government running while they work on a long-term budget, but conservative Republicans have threatened to derail that process by insisting any such bill defund Affordable Care Act provisions. The effort is highly unlikely to succeed, but it shows how incohesive Congress is when it comes to federal spending.
“What is so incredible to me is the lack of a plan with bipartisan support for the budget,” Pearson said. “What looks unproductive now will look even more unproductive once Congress starts to grapple with the budget.”
On top of that, the government hits its borrowing limit something this fall, and lawmakers are poised to repeat the fight over federal borrowing that consumed Washington during the summer of 2011. Republicans want spending cuts equal to the additional debt the government can carry; President Obama has said he doesn’t want to negotiate over raising the limit.
Student loans/No Child Left Behind
The debate over student loan interest rate was at once one of this Congress’ biggest failures and successes.
First, Congress missed its June 30 deadline to pass a student loan fix, causing interest rates on certain types of loans to double. But after another month of debate, lawmakers hatched a plan to completely overhaul the system, setting the rates on the Treasury market and lowering them overall. The House passed the bill this week and Obama will sign it soon (it’ll be public law number 23!).
Though it got lost a bit in the student-loan spat, both the House and Senate moved forward with No Child Left Behind reform bills this summer. The House passed a Republican plan to (at its most basic level) return control of education standards to the states, and the Senate education committee passed its version of the bill, which maintains federal standards but softens the most egregious part of NCLB. The full Senate could take up that bill this fall, which would theoretically set up an opportunity for lawmakers to find some kind of compromise.
NCLB reform has languished for years, and Republicans and Democrats are so far apart that such an agreement seems unlikely — but lawmakers are further along this year then they’ve ever been, so they’re not giving up yet.
“It’ll be trying to hash out something in conference will be very difficult because of the different philosophies, but I don’t think it’s impossible,” Sen. Al Franken said.
One of the biggest dramas on the Hill this summer came from the farm bill, one of the most commonly bipartisan bills Congress takes up.
The Senate passed its $500 billion farm bill in June, fairly easily. But in the House, where conservatives were calling for deeper food stamp cuts and liberals were saying the bill cut too much already, the legislation failed when it came up for a vote in June.
The House eventually split its bill into two pieces, passing an agriculture-only component in July. Republicans will try to move their food stamp bill (with double the cuts of the original bill, and 10 times the cuts in the Senate’s) in September.
That strategy doesn’t sit well with Democrats, especially Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee. He said the plan will cause major problems when it comes time to reconcile the bills next month (current farm policy expires at the end of September).
“It’s very discouraging, as somebody whose worked on this for three and a half years,” he said. “It’s just one thing after another. You just think that you’ve maybe got a pathway to finally get this done, and then there’s another roadblock.”
After six months of debate, the Senate was able to approve a massive overhaul of federal immigration laws in June, but its way through the House is muddled, at best.
The Senate’s bill provides a pathway to citizenship for most of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, beefs up border security and updates employment provisions under current law. The bill passed with bipartisan support, though House Republicans have said they’ll move slowly on the issue, breaking it into chunks (provisions like citizenship for children and border security will move on their own, potentially sometime this fall).
Complicating matters are the chamber’s most conservative members, including Rep. Michele Bachmann, who are vehemently against passing any immigration form bill that provides citizenship to immigrants here illegally. Republican leaders have said they’ll only move an immigration bill if it has majority support in their caucus, setting a high bar for reform efforts.
John Keller, director of the Minnesota Immigration Law Center, said there is “definitely concern on what feels like inaction in the House,” but that “you can be dismayed that they haven’t passed a bill yet, but you can take heart that they haven’t passed an openly anti-immigrant bill.”
Immigration-reform proponents say they plan to spend much of the August recess trying to rally House support for an immigration overhaul. In Minnesota, they’ll focus on Republican Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen, and Peterson, a conservative Democrat.
The Senate had a fairly productive July confirming Obama’s executive branch nominations, including Minnesota U.S. Attorney B. Todd Jones to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
The Senate confirmed a full slate of National Labor Relations Board members, the first chairman of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and a new United Nations ambassador. But the confirmations came only after a group of Republicans agreed to help Democrats move the nominees after they threatened to blow up Senate filibuster rules to force them through.
And Jones’s nomination shows just how tenuous that agreement was: Democrats were only able to overcome a filibuster of his nomination when they convinced a Republican senator to switch her vote after an hour of arm-twisting on the Senate floor.
“Here we have been doing so well, and I would say even before the big Monday night [filibuster] meeting, that we were able to move immigration, the farm bill, we have working debt groups going on,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a filibuster reform advocate and Jones’ biggest supporter in the Senate. “The last thing we want to do is leave with some radioactive blow-up.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry