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.