In the build-up to last November’s mid-term elections, some political analysts wondered if a divided Congress would prove to be a recipe for gridlock.
They were right. Five months into the 112th Congress, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have accomplished… well, nothing much at all. In fact, they have struggled just to do their most basic job: keep the government running.
To date Republicans in charge of the House have passed Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial budget resolution and a slew of other GOP-backed measures that stand absolutely no chance of success in the Democrat-controlled Senate. In the upper chamber of Congress, meanwhile, Democrats have settled on an equally unproductive strategy: don’t bother to pass anything at all.
Ultimately, this Congress may have less to do with accomplishing anything good and a lot more to do with preventing anything bad. In April, a contentious fight over federal funding was only resolved hours before the government was due to shut down.
Take the ongoing battle over raising the country’s debt ceiling. Months ago, the Obama administration asked Congress to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit to prevent a default that economists warn could trigger devastating consequences. Whenever an increase to the limit was necessary in the past, Congress never failed to raise the debt ceiling.
Naturally, even as the nation last week finally hit its red-ink limit, this Congress has done… absolutely nothing.
Now the Treasury Department has started implementing “extraordinary measures” to buy Congress more time to strike a deal. Treasury should now be able to stretch out government funding until early August.
But since the debt ceiling fight “is going to be Armageddon,” according to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., there’s no guarantee that this do-nothing Congress will even act by then. One member of Congress – Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from California – even told Politico that defaulting on the debt “could benefit us to go through a period of crisis that forces politicians to make decisions” on budget policies.
Then three weeks ago Vice President Biden kicked off negotiations with a bipartisan group of lawmakers representing each of the four caucuses in Congress. But it said something about the partisan divide in Washington that after one of their meetings Biden remarked that the negotiators were “actually” making progress, as if was cause for surprise.
If it’s any indication how difficult it could be for both parties to reach an agreement, consider the plight of a separate group of lawmakers that has been meeting for months in an effort to hatch a deficit reduction deal.
The Gang of Six – Democratic senators Dick Durbin, Kent Conrad and Mark Warner, and Republican senators Tom Coburn, Saxby Chambliss, and Mike Crapo – started working in January to reach a deal that could gain traction on Capitol Hill. For a while it sounded like the group was making progress. Just before the Congressional Easter recess, Durbin told ABC News that the group was “very very close,” noting that if they waited too long to release a report, “we may not be players.”
So what happened after recess? Naturally, talks stalled. Last week, it got even worse: Coburn left the gang altogether. So much for being “very very close.”
For both sides of the aisle, reaching a deal that can secure bipartisan backing will be a tall order. Democrats don’t want to touch entitlement programs. Republicans don’t want to raise taxes. And if the past five months are any indication, doing anything at all will likely prove to be a significant challenge. The issue has not even taken center stage on the floor calendars of either chamber in recent weeks. Instead, lawmakers have opted to focus on political show votes.
Senate Democrats recently managed to chew up some time with a push to eliminate tax breaks for the oil and gas industry, an effort always destined to fail from the get-go since they needed at least seven Republicans to side with them to overcome the chamber’s 60-vote filibuster threshold. But that didn’t stop them from holding a high-profile hearing and bringing the issue to a vote. After all, if you can’t actually do something that will make a difference, at least do something that will make headlines.
The gridlock got even worse last Thursday when – for the first time in President Obama’s presidency – one of his judicial nominees was blocked by the Senate. The nomination of California-Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals went down to defeat at the hands of a GOP filibuster.
Now, in an election season tit-for-tat, Senate Democrats will force Republicans to vote on Ryan’s House-passed GOP budget, while Senate Republicans in turn will force Democrats to vote on President Obama’s budget proposal submitted in February. Neither measure will pass, but that’s not the point: if Democrats are going to make vulnerable Republicans like Indiana’s Dick Lugar and Maine’s Olympia Snowe take a stand on Ryan’s controversial proposal then Republicans will make vulnerable Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Montana’s Jon Tester vote on the President’s proposal – the same proposal that both of them criticized only a few months ago for not doing enough to reduce the country’s soaring deficits.
Meanwhile, other lawmakers have vociferously called for a full Senate debate on U.S. military involvement in Libya, but that campaign is now two months old. Somehow, for a Congress stuck in perpetual gridlock, it’s somewhat fitting that lawmakers are still arguing about having a debate over whether to approve or reject a military effort that has been going on for months already. Welcome to the 112th Congress.