In case you didn't know, Congress is in recess. Lawmakers have given themselves a five-week break. Unanimously. This week they voted "without objection" not to come back to Washington until Sept. 10.
I don't blame you if you hadn't noticed, because there's little difference between when Congress is in session and when Congress is not. Either way, it never gets anything done.
And don't expect Congress to get anything accomplished when it reconvenes, either. As Rep. Gerry Connolly told my audience on Current TV, there's the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar, the Islamic calendar, the Hebrew calendar – and the congressional calendar.
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On its own calendar, Congress set aside a total of 109 working days for year 2012. Between now and Nov. 6, it has scheduled exactly eight workdays in September and only five days in October. What the rest of us wouldn't give for a schedule like that! It's almost enough to make you want to run for Congress.
It wouldn't be so bad if Congress actually got things done when it was in session. Except it doesn't. Consider some of the most pressing issues facing the nation: climate change, immigration reform, tax reform, gun control, campaign reform. Congress has not only failed to resolve those issues, it hasn't even considered them.
Forget the far-sighted stuff. Congress couldn't even bring itself to act on what, in the past, has always been routine – and bipartisan. Take the farm bill. Used to be apple pie. No longer. On June 21, the Senate, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 64 to 35, passed a $1 trillion farm bill containing price supports and crop insurance for farmers, as well as food assistance to low-income families. House Republicans rejected the measure because it didn't slash food stamps enough. Instead, they passed a very narrow emergency relief package for some farmers suffering from today's disastrous drought, which the Senate in turn rejected. Then, rather than sit down and resolve their differences, both the Senate and House packed up and went home – leaving America's farmers, literally, high and dry.
Even where Congress did manage to act, usually at the 11th-plus hour, it fell short of what was needed. The highway bill, for example, was another area where, in happier times, members of both parties routinely came together to approve plans stretching out five years. Who could possibly be against building new roads and bridges? As we discovered this year: tea party Republicans, that's who! House leaders could barely round up enough votes to join the Senate in approving a modest two-year plan, barely enough time to plan and build most highway projects.
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Same with student loans. Even though legislators knew for months that the interest rate on student loans would double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1, absent congressional action, they waited until June 29 to agree to extend the lower interest rate – and then for one year only – which means we'll be in the same soup again next spring, when Congress should be tackling other important issues.
But nowhere has Congress performed worse than in its failure to deal with the debt and deficit. The Senate voted to extend tax cuts for the middle class, those making up to $250,000 a year. House Republicans shot it down, because it did not also include tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. Meanwhile, the specter of sequestration – disastrous $1.2 trillion cuts to Pentagon spending and domestic programs – hangs over us on Jan. 1. But, once again, Congress has refused to deal with it. Lawmakers would rather go to the beach.
It doesn't have to be this way. Nancy Pelosi proved that. Under her leadership, the 111th Congress enacted universal health care, ended the military's practice of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," passed a $787 billion jobs bill, laid forth new regulations on Wall Street and helped women get equal pay for equal work. The Senate also ratified a new nuclear arms treaty. Historian Alan Brinkley rated it "probably the most productive session of Congress since at least the '60s."
Unfortunately, John Boehner has produced just the opposite: Not one piece of significant legislation – unless you count voting to repeal Obamacare 33 times! As Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper laments, "America's problems have rarely looked so large, and Congress has rarely looked so small."
No wonder Congress has only a 17 percent approval rating. Considering their miserable performance, the only question is: Why is it still so high?