The Recess Mess: Congress Leaves Pile of Unfinished Business

In the last legislative week before Congress leaves for its annual summer recess, there’s a certain finish-line anticipation in the air as lawmakers, staffers, and journalists alike crunch through a packed agenda to get out the door and back to home districts.

For the next five weeks, D.C. denizens will hold town-hall meetings, go on congressional trips, and take some vacation time. It’s the equivalent of the school bell ringing and students skipping outside with jump-rope to fight over the swing sets — suddenly, parking is easier to find in D.C. and traffic around the Hill is taken down a few road-rage notches.

But it’s the amount of unfinished work on Congress’ desks that makes this fun-in-the-sun period especially controversial this year.

In fact, it’s not even technically recess right now. The House is actually in pro forma session, having voted 150-265 against adjournment on Thursday evening. All Democrats voted to stay in session, while 78 Republicans joined them to vote against adjournment.

The Senate, however, passed the resolution to adjourn until Sept. 10. Because the House did not agree to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) concurrent resolution to adjourn, the Senate will have pro forma sessions in the Hart office building — as recess repairs are being made to the upper chamber — with no business conducted over the recess period.

Lawmakers from both chambers split town late last week. And though Reid was the one who introduced the resolution to adjourn, Senate Democrats quickly lambasted the “do-nothing House” for “stranding” Senate bills including the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act and the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization, which is going to conference committee.

“In the time since the Senate passed its bill, there have been over 1.2 million incidents of violence against women,” Democratic leadership hurled at the House.

But the accurate way to describe key bills gathering dust for the next five weeks would be a grand impasse that will only become more insurmountable as Election Day nears.

The Bush-era tax cuts will expire at the end of the year without action from Congress. President Obama seized on the looming tax-hike date to propose extension of the tax rates for lower and middle incomes only, with the disputed extension of upper income tax cuts to be fought at some undetermined time down the road. Before recess, the House rejected the Obama-dictated Senate version and passed their own extension of all the tax cuts.

“We have made clear our willingness to be here in Washington if the President and Harry Reid will finally decide to join us in a bipartisan solution to stop the massive tax hike,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Saturday in the weekly Republican address.

Last week, Republican leaders sent a letter to Reid vowing to return from recess if the Senate votes to stop all tax hikes and the brutal defense cuts on the horizon.

“The defense sequester is, as you know, the result of President Obama’s desire to avoid an additional vote on raising the nation’s debt limit before the presidential election,” wrote Cantor, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). “We passed it reluctantly, at your urging, after receiving a commitment that the president and the Democratic leadership in the Senate would work with Republicans to avert the sequester by enacting a deficit reduction package built on pro-growth tax reform and much-needed changes to strengthen and stabilize our entitlement programs.”

On Cantor’s website, a countdown clock ticks off a little over eight days until the sequester takes effect, if the Senate does not act.

Congressmen in the affected states are fanning out to meet with worried constituents as the nearly $500 billion in additional required defense cuts could cost up to a million jobs, with 200,000 in Virginia alone, and shrink national defense to the smallest size since before World War II. One congressional aide told PJM that his boss has so many meetings scheduled over recess with soon-to-be-bludgeoned defense contractors and other military and support services that he can barely keep track of the schedule.

In May, the House passed the Sequester Replacement Reconciliation Act of 2012 and an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Bill to freeze sequestration for fiscal year 2013. In July, GOP leaders in the Senate and House asked Obama to work with them on a solution to stop the sequestration. That hasn’t happened.

Obama has brushed off the looming cuts as something the GOP voted for as the Republicans note that the Democrats didn’t make good on their promise to work to avert the sequester.

Three weeks after it passed out of committee, the farm bill also hit a roadblock in the pre-recess House when leaders didn’t bring it to the floor, irritating Republicans and Democrats from agricultural districts.

“I worked hard with the chairman and ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee to pass a bi-partisan Farm Bill out of the House Agriculture Committee. In the weeks since the committee’s approval of the bill, I have been urging House leaders to bring the bill to the floor for a vote,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said Thursday. “Conversations I’ve had with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle tell me that the votes are there to get the Farm Bill through the House and to conference with the Senate.”

“I voted against adjournment because we have a limited amount of time to finish our work on the Farm Bill,” said Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.). “Federal agriculture programs critical to New York farmers will expire at the end of September. It is unacceptable for the House to leave Washington without approving its version of the bill so that negotiations may begin between the House and Senate on a final version to send to the president.”

In the home recess stretch, conservative lobbyists were campaigning against the bill for its expenditure into the food stamp program. But Reps. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), Rick Berg (R-N.D.), Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) have launched a discharge petition effort, which would force a floor vote if at least 218 members sign.

“Producers battered by this summer’s drought are counting on the Farm Bill to help them through this tough time,” Braley wrote in a letter to colleagues. “…As you know, the Farm Bill has yet to be brought up and it is unclear whether it will come up prior to the Farm Bill’s September 30th expiration date.”

There’s also the cybersecurity bill, intended to protect infrastructure such as the power grid and water facilities from cyberattack. Reid criticized Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week for wanting to bring up an ObamaCare repeal vote when the cybersecurity bill — which passed the House in April — was at hand. But the Senate left without taking a vote, even as Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) furiously tried to hammer out a compromise.

Postal reform is also still very much up in the air. The service didn’t make good on a $5 billion healthcare payment Aug. 1 — its first default in history — and is continuing to hemorrhage money. Reid obviously wants the Senate’s version of the postal reform bill, which was passed in April, but the House is holding out for its own solution. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has fashioned his own strict streamlining to rescue the postal service, but there are doubts about whether or not his belt-tightening could even pass the lower chamber.

Once Congress does return from recess, the focus is going to be on campaigning instead of legislating, with fewer than three business weeks of actual D.C. work days in the House before Election Day.

And what else could be stacking up on lawmakers’ to-do lists? Reaction to yesterday’s mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin has been much more muted on the Hill than after the Aurora, Colo., murders, but even Obama left the door open for a new gun-control push in coming weeks.

“For our nation, it’s another sad moment to reflect and ask ourselves what we can do to fight intolerance and improve public safety for innocent Americans in a nation where guns unfortunately too often fall into the wrong hands,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), arguably the most strident gun-control advocate in Congress, who renewed calls for stricter laws in the wake of the Aurora shooting just two weeks ago.