Congress returns to Washington this week after a thoroughly undeserved one-month vacation to find their work right where they left it — far from finished.
The lawmakers say they had to break to talk to their constituents and gauge the mood of the country. They didn’t have to leave Washington to find that out. The voters are depressed and anxious — thanks in part to congressional stunts like a totally unnecessary fight over raising the national debt ceiling that resulted in a first-ever dent to the national credit rating.
Congress fouls up one of its mandatory duties every year so it’s almost not worth mentioning. But every year since 1995, the lawmakers have failed to finish the 12 appropriations bills that fund the government for the next year by the Oct. 1 deadline. The Senate has passed only one. Sometimes the lawmakers never get around to it, resorting instead to a sloppy and expensive process of passing temporary measures. Often the whole mess gets left to the next Congress to take care of.
The No. 1 talking point will be jobs. On Thursday, President Barack Obama is to lay out his newest jobs agenda; hopefully it might be big, bold and visionary. But he could put all 14 million unemployed Americans back to work tomorrow and congressional Republicans might still say no rather than hand him a victory in advance of the 2012 election.
There are three free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama that might actually create some jobs. These have been hanging around for years, but opponents always come up with an objection, usually involving aid to U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of the pacts. This year, they might actually pass but that’s been said before.
One fight to watch will be the reauthorization of the surface transportation bill that comes up for renewal every five to six years. This one has been waiting to be renewed since 2009 and has been extended seven times. If the bill expires at the end of the month, billions in road, bridge and mass transit projects will be idled along with their workers. And the government will be unable to collect the 18.4-cents-per-gallon gas tax.
House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., says he’ll agree to one more extension, a short one, but he and the Senate are far apart on the cost and duration of the new bill.
The most recent of the short-term extensions the Federal Aviation Administration has been operating under since 2007 expires Sept. 16, meaning a halt to airport construction, tens of thousands of layoffs and hundreds of millions of dollars in uncollected airline ticket taxes.
If a bipartisan supercommittee cannot agree on $1.2 trillion in budget cuts, across-the-board cuts will go into effect automatically in 2013. When the voters get a look at the impact of those cuts, they’ll be even more depressed and anxious — and angry, really angry.
Meanwhile, Belgium has now gone more than 450 days without a parliamentary government and seems to be getting along quite nicely. Congress take note.
Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.