The Do-Nothing Congress Has to Do Everything at Once
The most inefficient Congress in history will soon have to vote on Syria, solve two budget crises, avoid a government shutdown, and figure out a deal to renew farm subsidies and the food stamp program.
Photo via Flickr user RJ Schmidt
The United States Congress has a shitload of power. It can declare war, print currency, borrow money, pay debts, impose taxes, maintain a military, establish post offices and roads, regulate interstate commerce, issue patents and copyrights, and probably a bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting. Although members of Congress are encouraged by their own parties to spend the bulk of their time fundraising for future elections, and although these days much of the legislative process seems to be geared towards pointless grandstanding, if Congress was able to reach consensus through deal-making and compromise (THE WAY IT IS FUCKING SUPPOSED TO), it could make a lot happen,
The problem is, Congress is going to be forced—by the calendar, world affairs, and their own past inaction—to make a lot happen in the next month, and there’s not much in recent history that suggests they’ll be able to handle the workload. This is the most inefficient Congress in history in terms of turning bills into laws, and now they’re faced with the following crises:
The Syria Thing
In the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s using chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels, Barack Obama could have bombed his regime without Congress’s permission. Obama intervened in Libya two years ago, and in the past three decades presidents from both parties have bombed and invaded countries all over the world on their own authority. In some ways it’s nice to see the president invoke at least the remnants of the spirit of that old-timey idea that a democracy shouldn’t go to war without a go-ahead from the people (who polls indicate oppose military action), or at least the people’s representatives.
But while Congress gears up for a vote on Wednesday—the leaders of both parties favor bombing, the notoriously independent, anti-Obama Republicans in the House are mostly against it—it might not matter. There’s a chance that Assad will agree to give up his chemical weapons after a nudge by Russia, and even if that diplomactic effort falls through and the House votes "no" to a war, Obama might, a.k.a will, launch missiles anyway. These past several days of public and private maneuvering over the Syria vote may turn out to be meaningless, which would be a shame since Congress doesn’t have a lot of days to burn. It also has to avoid…
The Upcoming Government Shutdown
Probably even more important than telling Obama whether they’re OK with him bombing Syria is Congress’s upcoming budget for fiscal year 2014, which starts on October 1. The basic problem with the budget is that there is no budget.
To keep things running, both houses are going to have to pass what’s called a continuing resolution, a bill that essentially says, “OK, the federal government is allowed to continue operating and paying its 20,000-odd employees—here’s X dollars to do so.” Democrats and Republicans disagree a lot on what number X should be, but what’s really holding things up is that some Tea Party Republicans like Ted Cruz want to make taking away the money set aside for Obamacare a condition of funding many ordinary government operations, including museums and national parks all over the country.
The GOP has no chance of repealing the health care law through normal channels, so threatening to deprive government workers and close parks to get their way is, most people agree, a terrible idea that would likely make voters angry at conservative Republicans. That’s why the House leaders are trying a tricky maneuver this week that would let the uber-conservative wing technically vote to defund Obamacare but give the Senate the final say (the Senate, presumably, would leave the health care funding intact). That all sounds fairly complicated, but the Cliff’s Notes version of this is that some GOP Congressmen hate Obamacare so much that they’ll close the government rather than compromise. Which isn’t good news for the next item on the docket…
Speaker of the House John Boehner hardly ever looks happy. I wonder why. Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore
The Debt Ceiling
If one mumbo-jumbo-filled gridlocked legislative fight wasn’t good enough for you, HERE COMES THE MOTHERFUCKIN’ DEBT CEILING FIGHT PART XVI or whatever it is now. Thanks to an odd quirk of the system, Congress has to vote to approve new levels of government debt—even though that debt comes from taxes and spending that Congress presumably already authorized.
The House GOP doesn’t want to raise the debt limit because, as you may have noticed, there’s a big ol’ chunk of the House GOP that doesn’t want to do shit, ever, unless it gets exactly what it wants. Before Syria became an issue, Speaker of the House John Boehner declared that the debt ceiling wouldn’t be raised unless there were some spending cuts made, which is also what he said last time this was an issue, not to mention the time before that. If the ceiling isn’t raised, eventually the US government won’t have the ability to pay its creditors, a prospect that in the past has spooked investors and cost the government money. But at least the food supply isn’t threatened by partisan squabbling, right? Oh, wait…
The Farm Bill
For decades, subsidies for farmers have been bundled together with funding for food stamps in a legislative package that gets renewed every five years. Normally, after some negotiations the Farm Bill is approved along bipartisan lines, because rural districts like the farm subsidies while cities have lots of people that need government assistance. But in this Congress, what once was routine is impossibly difficult.
The Senate has passed its version of the Farm Bill, but GOP members in the House (ha ha, those pesky lil’ guys again) couldn’t get together on how much to cut from the food stamp program. The House passed a bill on farm spending separate from the part of the Farm Bill on food aid, which has pissed off everyone and disrupted the normal process. If the House can’t sort itself out by September 30, the price of bread and milk could rise. Meanwhile, the House GOP wants drastic cuts and reforms to be made to the food stamp program, and it’s not clear how the Republicans in the House and the Democrats in the Senate will work out the differences between their versions of the Farm Bill. And after that comes…
Once upon a time, this was regarded as a top priority. Not only was Obama making it a priority, but the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" not only got together in the Senate to push through a bill, they were trying to persuade the House to pass it as well. Now it's fallen by the wayside and unlikely to be voted on in the House for months. Advocates for reform told the New York Times that Congress needs to act. “A vote for delay is a vote for crisis and disorder in the current system," is how one put it. The problem is, there are too many crises on the docket already.