I believe it was Howard Baker, former Majority Leader in the Senate and Reagan Chief of Staff, who observed that the era of big government didn’t arrive in Washington until they installed air conditioning in the Capitol building. Congress used to adjourn around the 4th of July and flee the District’s oppressive heat and humidity until after Labor Day, giving taxpayers a break by not passing any legislation for two blessed months.
Now the “summer recess” has become the “August recess” and Congress still can’t manage its time very well. Members streamed out of Washington yesterday, headed home for some politicking and relaxation.
But they also left much unfinished business.
After a final day of partisan battles over drought relief and cybersecurity, members of Congress streamed out of the Capitol looking forward to five weeks of vacation and a fall fraught with decisions on the political and economic future of the country.
Most lawmakers were headed home to make their party’s case for who should be entitled to tax cuts, how the government should avoid automatic cuts to defense and domestic programs and who should be the next president. Many will drop by the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions in Tampa, Fla., and Charlotte, N.C., respectively.
The last day, Thursday, saw lawmakers fall short in finding agreement on two pressing problems: how to help livestock producers suffering from the widespread drought and how to protect critical industries from cyberattacks launched by terrorists or other enemies.
The GOP-led House narrowly approved a bill that would revive expired disaster relief programs for cattle and sheep farmers who have seen the price of feed soar because of drought damage to corn and other crops. But the Senate, controlled by Democrats, sidestepped action on the bill, saying that it was insufficient and that the House should instead consider a comprehensive five-year farm policy bill that the Senate passed in June.
The Senate also reached an impasse on legislation to bring the government and businesses together to protect the nation’s infrastructure from cyberattacks. The main stumbling block was the role the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies should play in protecting U.S. businesses.
Republicans blocked further consideration of the Senate bill, supported by the White House, saying it would lead to Washington imposing a heavy hand on the private sector without substantially reducing risks. Both parties said they were committed to approving a final bill when they return in September, although bridging differences in their approaches will not be easy.
Neither of those items are as pressing as dealing with “Taxageddon.” On January 1, 2013, the Bush tax cuts will expire and sequestration will kick in, shredding the defense budget and cutting domestic spending as well, costing thousands of jobs and affecting vital programs.
The leadership in both the House and Senate insist there isn’t enough time before the election to address the tax and spending issues that would lead to this calamity. I call bull cookies on that. There is plenty of time to deal with the problem if there was a willingness to do so. But both sides are paralyzed by partisanship and electioneering and there is precious little desire to offend one constituency or another, which will be the end result of any deal reached to avoid the fiscal cliff.
And the idea that anything can be done during a lame duck session after the election may also be a chimera. No matter the makeup of the House and Senate, the motivation to deal with the deficit and taxes isn’t there. Both sides seem content now to kick the can down the road for either a new President Romney, or a second term Obama to deal with.
I suppose they could have forgone their August recess in order to confront the crisis. But where’s the fun in that? Serving the people is all fine and dandy but compared to that European vacation, or the month at the shore, the people can wait.