House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told Republicans they would make a “closing argument” to midterm election voters in the session of Congress that began Monday. It’s shaping up to be a lousy one. On the other hand, the Democrat-controlled Senate is not likely to do much better.
Operating on the notion the public prefers political theater to authentic accomplishments, the House and Senate are preparing to achieve almost nothing when they reconvene. Instead of passing bills into law and allowing voters to judge their work, legislators appear to be pushing hopes of any serious lawmaking off into the safety of a post-election, lame-duck session.
In a memorandum sent to House Republicans on Thursday, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy promised a “busy September.” The GOP, he wrote, will bundle together and pass again a series of bills that the House approved earlier but that never made headway in the Senate. Repackaging and restamping defunct bills doesn’t sound like much work. And Republicans don’t have to worry about the Senate sending any of the bundles back for final consultations before they go to the president’s desk. They contain so many proposals that are both unwise and toxic to Democrats that the Senate will dismiss them for what they are: measures meant to make Republicans appear as though they are advancing a conservative agenda when, in fact, they are advancing nothing.
Senate Democrats aren’t going to be above such maneuvering. Senate leaders might hold votes on bills calculated to appeal to women and working-class voters — if not to pass Congress. The Senate, for example, could vote on raising the federal minimum wage or on an expensive student loan refinancing scheme, neither of which have a chance in the GOP House.
It’s too easy to dismiss the dueling bill-passing as the natural results of deep party disagreement. There are many areas of prime national concern on which the parties have the capacity to agree. If they grew a little backbone, legislators could tackle major issues such as transportation funding, a matter on which the right answers are known and favored by members of both parties.
Congress will have to accomplish one thing when it reconvenes: passing a stopgap budget measure to keep the government open. President Obama might also consult lawmakers about broader military action against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria. But barely seeing to essential congressional responsibilities in order to invest heavy amounts of time in useless political statement-making — that is plain legislative dysfunction of which the leadership on both sides of the Capitol are guilty.
Polls show that voters are deeply dissatisfied with Congress, and they have every reason to be. But they are responsible. It is up to them to elect lawmakers who prefer to shake hands and pass legislation rather than waste time in the sort of cynical positioning Washington will see over the next several weeks.