WASHINGTON — Reading from George Washington’s farewell address, the senator from Maine reopened Congress this week after an extended recess with an appeal to lawmakers’ better nature, warning against excessive factionalism and impure motives.
But as independent Senator Angus King recited the founding father’s prescription for better governance, its intended audience was absent. Each of the 100 desks in the Senate chamber, as is often the case, was empty. And partisan skirmishing that followed showed hardly anyone in Congress is ready to follow Washington’s advice.
This week was Congress’s first opportunity for action since lawmakers took a series of urgent votes to raise the debt ceiling and stave off a fiscal calamity in early February. Returning after a President’s Day break of nearly two weeks, members of the House and Senate quickly made it clear the sense of shared purpose had evaporated. Prospects for more substantive action in 2014, barring an unexpected crisis that needs to be resolved, are near zero, many frustrated lawmakers say.
“You talk about Groundhog Day. This is Groundhog Year,” Senate majority leader Harry Reid complained from the floor on Wednesday.
“What are we doing here today?” the Nevada Democrat said. “Nothing, nothing.”
Midterm election years, when the full House and one-third of the Senate face reelection, often usher in legislative slowdowns, but many lawmakers say the current forecast is worse than usual. The mood is decidedly fatalistic and partisan. Recriminations are the order of the day, as lawmakers slosh through the muck of dysfunction.
Few expect significant proposals to pass until after the November elections. Or later.
“And all of the sudden, what are you into? The presidential election!” said Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, looking ahead to the 2016 campaign. “The beat goes on.”
Outside the Senate chamber this week, as King completed his speech, a Capitol police officer shook his head. The February recess, which started a day early to avoid a snowstorm, lasted 13 days. The next one, he noted wryly, was just three weeks away.
(The March recess, which coincides with St. Patrick’s Day, will be followed shortly thereafter by the April recess, which covers Passover, Good Friday, and Easter. Congress, some might say, celebrates more holidays than a mattress store.)
In this atmosphere, it surprised no one when the longest tenured congressman in history, Representative John Dingell, announced on Monday that he would retire after nearly 60 years. Unlike others who cite health, family concerns, or new opportunities, the 87-year-old Dingell was blunt. “I find serving in the House to be obnoxious,” the Michigan Democrat told the Detroit News.
A CBS News/New York Times poll released this week found only 13 percent of respondents approve of Congress’s performance — a slight improvement from the November poll showing only 9 percent approval. Just 41 percent approve of President Obama’s job performance, compared with 51 percent who disapprove.
Many lawmakers say they are dismayed that they are showing up to work only to find their opponents choreographing symbolic votes tailored for the next election. The theater is especially hollow in a divided Congress because most such bills, passed in the Republican-run House or the Democratic-run Senate, have little chance of even being considered in the opposing chamber.
Upon returning to Washington, House Republicans branded the week the “Stop Government Abuse Week.” They voted on a bill designed to once again highlight revelations last year that conservative nonprofit groups were among those targeted for additional scrutiny by the IRS. The bill had a title that was ready-made for the campaign trail: Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act of 2014.
After it passed along predictable party lines, Republicans promptly sent out press releases lambasting Democrats who voted “to keep IRS targeting.”
Democrats tried to spin the vote to their advantage, forcing their GOP colleagues to vote on a failed amendment to change the bill’s name to the Protect Anonymous Special Interests Act.
During a pause in the theatrics, Representative Richard E. Neal, a Springfield Democrat and dean of the Massachusetts delegation, lamented the loss of seriousness since he entered Congress a quarter-century ago. The relationships are still strong, if not better, he insisted. But now, the political rewards come chiefly from opposing things, rather than from actual work, he said.
“The consternation is felt across the board,” he said. “There’s less an art form in terms of legislating, and I think that we’re not paying a price for more conflict, more speechifying, and more celebrity.”
Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, laughed when asked what Congress would accomplish for the rest of the year, as if the question answered itself.
“It comes with the territory,” he said, as he headed to cast a vote. “I’d rather be doing significant things, but you recognize it’s an election year and there are limitations.”
Flake said he still had “fading hopes” that lawmakers would complete an immigration overhaul. The other item on his wish list, a trade bill favored by Obama, had been shot down by Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
“It’s just gridlock and anger,’’ said Senator John McCain, another Arizona Republican, who blamed Reid for changing Senate rules in November to give Republicans less power.
Even signs of hope weren’t treated seriously.
Speaker John A. Boehner returned Tuesday from a rare meeting with Obama at the White House, meant to break the logjam that has dominated Washington through the tenure of both men. “We had a nice meeting,” Boehner told reporters as he headed back to his office. What did he discuss? “Buh buh buh buh buh buh buh,” he hummed as he dashed off.
Boehner’s office and the White House later revealed a range of topics the two men broached, including trade and immigration.
These summits between Obama and Boehner used to be greeted with great expectations among those in the media, Congress, and the administration. But the chance that two of the most powerful men in the country might get something done together was downplayed by both camps.
Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, said it’s a “misconception that success or failure of legislation in Congress depends on the relationship between a president and a speaker.”
Asked at a news conference Wednesday what substantive issues Congress could tackle this year, Boehner said with a smirk, “Hell, we could repeal Obamacare and get this monkey off the backs of the American people.”
The House has voted at least 49 times to repeal or curtail Obama’s health law, but has been blocked every time by the Democratic-led Senate. A 50th vote, eliminating the penalty for people who decline health insurance, is scheduled for next week.
Boehner then offered a more likely example of what might pass this year: rolling back steep increases in flood insurance rates that affect hundreds of thousands of homeowners.
While important in Massachusetts and several political battleground states such as Louisiana, a flood insurance rollback is a small-bore item in the context of the nation’s problems. The bill would merely block large premium hikes that were hailed in Congress as reforms two years ago, when passed with bipartisan support.
But that may be next month’s apex: tinkering with a law passed two years ago.
Key members of both parties said the most serious proposal of the week — a detailed Republican plan to rewrite the tax code — was unlikely to go anywhere this year. Indeed, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell quashed its prospects before it was even rolled out. And Boehner responded to a question about it like this: “Blah, blah, blah.”
By Thursday afternoon, the congressional work week was beginning to wrap up. Senators took their last votes and went home. For the week, they had confirmed a few judges and a deputy secretary of interior. The expansive veterans bill that would have spent $21 billion more over the next decade to expand benefits — their main work of the week — was shelved by Republicans. Democrats made sure to put out a few press releases, chiding Republicans for neglecting the veterans.
The House, which took Monday off, was feeling ambitious and planned a four-day work week, until Friday afternoon. After all, it had an important bill to consider — the Unfunded Mandates Information and Transparency Act. Just after 11:30 a.m., it passed. And many House members began heading for the airport to get back to their districts.Noah Bierman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.