WASHINGTON — Cars were stacked outside the Capitol on a recent night, ready to drive into the darkening evening. As members shuffled about the House, Representative James McGovern mused about the rush to leave.
“Maybe the American people won’t notice we were even here,” said McGovern, Democrat of Worcester. “There’s really not much to do.”
After returning from a five-week break, Congress is again poised to recess on Friday after being in session for just eight days, with both Republicans and Democrats acknowledging and grousing about a dysfunctional Congress. And with the November elections just weeks away, members of Congress are busy passing blame instead of bills.
“Democrats are dedicated to staying in session. Unfortunately, the ‘do-nothing’ Congress wants to go home,” said Representative Edward Markey, the Malden Democrat who chugs along introducing bills, including one protecting the privacy of cellphone users against intrusion from law enforcement, even though he acknowledges that none will be taken up soon.
There was an illusion of being busy these past few days doing the people’s work, as members held hearings, press conferences, and occasionally, votes.
The House last week did accomplish the task of approving a resolution that will allow the government to keep running for another six months.
“I don’t consider that a great accomplishment. That would be like getting points for breathing,” quipped Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat from Newton.
The Senate will take up the resolution later this week. Less certain is whether the House will take up the farm bill, already approved in the Senate, that would aid farmers hit by one of the worst droughts of the past century. But a Republican bid to cut funds for the food stamp program, which is part of the bill, has stalled it.
Even a seemingly patriotic overture to provide jobs for veterans is stuck in the Senate, and may never make it over to the House. Republicans are loading the measure with potentially deal-killing amendments, wary of giving Democrats and President Obama an opportunity to claim a rare victory on jobs-producing legislation.
“They are there in body but hardly in spirit. They are there to make a futile attempt to make the American public believe that Congress has vital signs — and not, in fact, flatlined,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who spent four months earlier this year embedded in the office of the Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada.
Any perceived action had one factor at its core: political messaging. After adjourning Friday, most representatives and about one-third of the senators will head back into their districts for the final weeks of campaigning, making the case that they deserve to keep their seats even if Congress deserves little more than disdain.
“There’s a lot of messaging that needs to be done,” said Representative Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado. “And it’s important to get votes on the record on where people stand.’’
Representative John Tierney, who is facing a tough reelection fight with former state senator Richard Tisei, has tried to raise his visibility, pumping out press releases in recent weeks to help burnish his record. So has Senator Scott Brown, a Republican who is facing a spirited challenge from Democrat Elizabeth Warren and who has tried to position himself as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress.
“It’s clear by any standard that Washington is broken. That’s why we need more moderate, independent thinkers like me who will work across the aisle to get things done,” said Brown.
As the messaging intensifies, Congress avoids much of its legislating responsibilities. Still awaiting action are the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, a cybersecurity bill, and postal reform.
Arguably the most pressing issue centers on avoiding the potential for a fiscal calamity in January because of pending automatic spending cuts and the expiration of what’s known as the Bush tax cuts. Economists fear that if both occur, that could tip a weak economy back into recession.
The matter will not be taken up until a “lame duck” session after the November election, but even that could be uncertain if government remains fractured. According to an analysis by Reuters, just 61 House bills have been signed into law this year, the fewest in more than 60 years. Last year, 90 bills were signed into law. In 2010, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, and the White House, 258 bills were signed into law.
As those numbers fall, so does the stature of Congress. A New York Times/CBS poll released over the weekend showed that a mere 12 percent of Americans, the lowest ever, approve of the job Congress is doing.