With the House and Senate shut down on Friday for the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan, lawmakers lost yet more time on the expiring congressional calendar. Congress is scheduled to be out from June 28 to July 5 for the July 4 recess (or, in official parlance, the “Independence Day District Work Period”). From the Democratic convention, which takes place the last week in July, to the GOP convention, which ends in early September, most members of Congress (all of the House and one-third of the Senate) will be away from Washington and campaigning for reelection. The target date for adjournment is Oct. 1. With control of Congress potentially up for grabs and a close election between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, lawmakers will be looking to get out on time.
This shrinking legislative window wouldn't be as much of a problem if Congress hadn't been inactive for so much of this year. As House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer noted last month, House members have worked “bankers' hours” in 2004; they may put in less face time than in 1998, when representatives reported for work in the nation's capital just 119 times. (That's one out of every three days for a year.) It would be merely ironic that lawmakers might spend more time this year trying to hold onto their jobs than actually doing those jobs, if so much important legislation -- the budget for fiscal year 2005 and the six-year transportation reauthorization bill, among other things -- were not sitting idle.
“Republicans have made it clear that ‘doing nothing' is their campaign strategy,” Hoyer said. “Republican leaders have publicly stated that they don't intend to do much this year, and plan to coast until the November election.”
But as the clock winds down on the 108th Congress, GOP leaders may be deciding it's time to get serious. A Republican House staffer told Roll Call this month that lawmakers could soon be working -- gasp! -- “perhaps five-day weeks.” Senators may even have to come back to work after the White House's congressional barbecue on Tuesday night, the newspaper reported.
It would be nice to think that lawmakers would take action on the many problems plaguing the country at the moment: an economy that's more than a million jobs short of where it was when the Bush administration began; high prices at the gas pump; and a war that's draining our treasury and seems unlikely to end anytime soon. But with none of the must-pass spending bills having passed either the House or Senate (let alone conference committees), there just isn't time to deal with all of these things, too. (Perhaps this is good news -- the biggest piece of legislation Congress passed last year was the flawed prescription drug bill. Passing no bills may be better than passing bad bills.)
In contrast to Republicans, Hoyer said, “Democrats don't want to coast. Democrats want to roll up our sleeves and get things done on behalf of the American people.” With Republicans controlling the House and cutting Democrats out of much of the legislative process, however, Democrats find themselves excluded from helping out.
There's another downside to the rushed timetable. The Defense Department reauthorization bill has more than 200 amendments waiting for consideration in the Senate. Debating and voting on all of them could take weeks, which isn't a realistic option, so the Senate will likely dismiss the vast majority of them out of hand. And if appropriations bills are bogged down come adjournment time, there'll be another omnibus bill approving large amounts of money for projects that members won't have adequate time to review. Meanwhile, even though time is in short supply, House GOP leaders will spend this week trying to score political points rather than passing legislation -- by grandstanding on energy bills that they know will not get through the Senate.
Republicans are saying that productivity is down because Democrats are holding up bills. But it's Republicans who, as the majority party, set the legislative calendar and generally control the speed at which things happen. If they actually wanted to get something done, they should have pressed members to work longer hours in Washington throughout the year rather than pushing the panic button with so little time left. As with much of the GOP's agenda, though, they've acted in a short-sighted way that has put their political goals -- maintaining control of Congress -- ahead of the needs of the American people. If they don't want to work harder for voters, perhaps they shouldn't be getting their votes.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill. Her column on Capitol Hill politics runs each week in the online edition of The American Prospect.