Washington Watch: The do-less Congress

US Congress just left town on an undeserved five-week summer vacation after having established itself as the least productive ever.

By DOUGLAS M. BLOOMFIELD
August 11, 2013 21:24
US Senator Ted Cruz.

US Senator Ted Cruz 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Harry Truman’s “Do Nothing Congress” looks hyperactive next to the current crowd, which just left town on an undeserved five-week summer vacation after having established itself as the least productive ever.

Our underworked and unproductive lawmakers departed after the Republican-led House voted for the 40th time to repeal Obamacare, and they’ll keep trying.

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Remember, they’re part of the crowd that has been trying to repeal Social Security for the nearly 80 years.

Their latest threat is to shut down the government next month if the president refuses to defund the Affordable Care Act, his signature legislative achievement.

A far-right group of Republicans, particularly several presidential wannabes in the Senate, are holding the budget hostage, saying they will block funding the federal government in the fiscal year beginning October 1 unless the president surrenders to their demands.

That worries a lot of their older GOP colleagues and particularly Republican governors who fear a shutdown could backfire on the party and hurt their states’ economies.

A leading advocate of the shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), called those critics the “surrender caucus” and insisted that the 1995-1996 shutdowns forced by House Republicans were actually a victory for the GOP.

If he believes that, he should ask president Gingrich how well it worked for him.

Cruz, who quickly built a reputation as something of a demagogic bomb thrower early in his first two years, is said to have White House ambitions, as do his two allies in the shutdown cause, Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.

Cruz & Co. have the hutzpa to say any shutdown would be Obama’s fault, not theirs, because he refuses to capitulate to their demand that he scrap Obamacare.

Amy Davidson, writing in The New Yorker, called that strategy “fiscal terrorism.” If the Democrats are smart, they’ll quietly watch the show while silently muttering, “Go ahead. Make my day.” A GOP-led shutdown will help them hold their majority in the Senate next year and possibly even return control of the House.

So far this year the 113th Congress has passed only 22 bills for the president’s signature.

That does not include any of the 12 annual appropriations bills needed to fund the government, and there are only nine legislative days remaining before the new fiscal year begins October 1. Without them, the government cannot operate.

Unless the Cruz shutdown caucus prevails, Congress will pass a stopgap spending bill, but in mid-November it will also be time to raise the government’s borrowing limit, creating another potential hostage situation.

A major part of the problem is the younger, Tea Party/libertarian wing which considers itself as the wave of the future and sees no reason to compromise with Democrats, or even some of their older fellow Republicans who remember the earlier shutdowns and don’t want a repeat.

Compounding the problem is Speaker John Boehner’s insistence that he won’t bring anything to the floor that doesn’t have the support of a majority of his members. House Republicans are also feuding with Senate Republicans, especially in the debate over the immigration bill.

That legislation passed the Senate with a large bipartisan majority, but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), who is aligned with the Tea Partiers, said most of his members don’t like it and so the House won’t even consider the bill. Instead it may try to deal with some aspects it likes – border security – and ignore others, notably a possible pathway to citizenship.

When it was pointed out that many children of illegal aliens have been valedictorians in their schools, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an bloviated foe of immigration reform, said those are a minority and most have “calves the size of cantaloupes” from hauling bales of marijuana across the Mexican border. Boehner called those comments “hateful [and] ignorant,” but King refused to back down, and his anti-immigrant views are likely to prevail.

The increasing isolationism and intolerance of many conservatives is why the Democrats have a lock on the Hispanic vote for the foreseeable future. And on the votes of Jews, African Americans, Asian-Americans and other minorities. The GOP’s obstructionist message doesn’t appeal to the swing voters who often determine elections, as the 2012 election showed. And they are anathema to most Jewish voters, as are the GOP’s attitudes on abortion, same sex marriage, health care reform, taxes, Medicare and Social Security.

The College Republican National Committee said the party’s image among young voters is one of being “closed-minded, racist and rigid.” Boehner had to pull the farm bill from the floor because the deep cuts the GOP made in the food stamp program weren’t severe enough for many conservatives.

One reason Congress is having so much trouble enacting legislation can be seen in how Boehner views his role. “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.” Boehner is terrified the Tea Partiers in his caucus will try to depose him if he even thinks about compromise.

Also looking over his own right shoulder is Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is worried about the Tea Party challenging him in his primary next year. McConnell is scared of Paul because the libertarian freshman soundly defeated McConnell’s candidate in the 2010 GOP primary and he doesn’t want the same thing happening to him.

McConnell boasts of his obstructionism, leading more filibusters than all his predecessors combined, to block Obama’s agenda. One of his opponents said he has blocked so much legislation that even if he had a kidney stone he wouldn’t let it pass.

A wild card is Cantor, the only Jewish Republican in Congress, who is believed to aspire to the speakership.

Will he work with the Tea Partiers to undermine Boehner, thereby boosting his own chances but adding to the turmoil within the GOP and increasing the legislative stalemate? Whatever Cantor does, this will remain the most polarized and unproductive Congress in a century. Little wonder its approval rating is down to 10 percent and sinking. And little wonder Jewish groups that advocate on a range of economic and social justice issues are despondent.

©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield bloomfieldcolumn@gmail.com http://www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas–bloomfield


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