Tanned and rested after a five-week summer vacation, Congress has returned for a brief session before returning home to campaign for re-election. This autumn session is expected to last a couple of weeks, give or take a couple of days.
What can be accomplished in so short a time? A great deal, if House and Senate choose to work together. Or nothing, if they don’t. If you are wondering which will happen, you haven’t been watching the 113th Congress up to now.
Congress has become so predictable in recent months that we can pretty much answer the five questions you probably have about the September session right now, in advance.
1. Will there be another shutdown like last fall?
No. Both chambers will approve temporary spending measures known as “continuing resolutions.” This will keep the federal government running into December, at which time Congress is expected back for a “lame duck” session. This is because most Republicans are relatively confident about their party’s prospects in the November voting. So why risk another stumble in the polls like the one they suffered with the 2013 partial shutdown?
2. Will Congress give President Obama new authority or fresh funding to battle the terrorist group calling itself Islamic State?
They might, if he asks. But then again, they might not. So the president may just not ask.
Right now the chances are that he won’t ask too directly for anything too specific. Bills were introduced Monday by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., seeking clear empowerment for the president to pursue Islamic State vigorously in the months ahead. Nelson had a three-year time limit; Wolf had none. Nelson specifically forbade any use of ground troops; Wolf did not.
Such a grant to this president may have been impossible a month ago, but the beheadings of two freelance American journalists have shifted the political wind yet again. Still, it is far from assured that the Nelson or Wolf bills could pass both chambers in the short time before the full-time campaign kicks in. So the administration may be satisfied with more of a vague expression of Hill sympathy, such as a vote to defeat a measure of disapproval for the airstrikes already undertaken against Islamic State.
3. Why only two weeks of work when there’s so much to do?
Because the two most deadline-sensitive tasks at hand — the CR and the reauthorizing of the Export-Import Bank — can be accomplished in short order.
Both will be driven by the Sept. 30 deadline that would impose real consequences if missed. Both are essentially stopgap measures that, while satisfying no one, will keep the status quo in place through Election Day and probably give the GOP a stronger hand to plan in December. The purpose of a pre-election session is not really to tackle the nation’s most serious problems. It is, rather, to position incumbents for re-election in November.
4. Is this really the least productive Congress ever?
There are measures by which this negative distinction can be applied to this Congress. But we should note that the 113th Congress did finish the farm bill left over from the 112th, and it did get immigration reform through one chamber. And while it has not done a budget or a regular process for appropriating money, neither did its predecessor.
And it is not fair to call this a “do nothing” Congress. The House has its “to do” list, and the Senate has one too; both are busy doing their own thing and ignoring the other’s thing. Scrupulously.
Once again this month the House will work through a stack of bills restraining the EPA and Obamacare and upbraiding the Obama administration for releasing Guantanamo prisoners in exchange for U.S. hostage Bowe Bergdahl earlier this year.
And the Senate will meanwhile be debating a constitutional amendment that would allow limits on campaign spending, plus a boost in the federal minimum wage and a block on businesses avoiding U.S. taxes by merging with foreign companies.
So each chamber works away at its agenda, and never the twain shall meet. And without joint action to get a finished bill to the president’s desk, all of this produces little except fodder for shout shows on TV and video footage for campaign ads to air this fall.
5. If this Congress has the lowest approval ratings since Gallup began measuring (hovering around 13 percent at present), why are so many of the incumbents seeking re-election expected to win?
Hard to understand as it is, this contradiction has been around a long time. We used to say Americans loved to hate Congress but also loved their own member of Congress. It has been common to see re-election rates of higher than 90 percent in the House and Senate, even as the institution trends ever lower in the public’s esteem.
Nowadays, people are more likely to say Congress needs a housecleaning that includes their own member. But that has yet to alter the fundamentals of re-election. Bear in mind, polls measure a scientifically representative sample of the country. Elections depend on a self-selected mini-minority of the populace that actually goes to vote. These tend to be the hardcore base voters in each party. And in the House, the vast majority even of these are locked in districts where only one party has a prayer of winning in November — thanks to gerrymandering.
So will the 113th stand as a historic high or low in the annals of congressional behavior? Maybe … until the 114th arrives.