In Congress, Partisan Gridlock and Harsh Consequences

By Weisman, Jonathan | International Herald Tribune, July 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

In Congress, Partisan Gridlock and Harsh Consequences


Weisman, Jonathan, International Herald Tribune


Even in some of the worst years of partisan gridlock, a deadline has meant something to Congress - until 2013, when drop-dead dates have come and gone, causing real-world consequences.

Despite finger-pointing news conferences and radio addresses by both parties on Capitol Hill, Congress let interest rates double last week on federally subsidized student loans. Eleven days earlier, a coalition of Democrats and conservative Republicans in the House scuttled the latest attempt at a farm bill, dooming for now disaster assistance for livestock producers still affected by last year's drought.

Congress returned Monday with a major overhaul of immigration pending in the House, the farm bill lying in a heap and new fiscal deadlines looming when the government runs out of spending authority on Sept. 30 and reaches its borrowing limit shortly thereafter. The Postal Service, meanwhile, continues to lose millions of dollars every day as a measure to rescue the agency founders in the House.

There is no guarantee that any of these issues will be dealt with.

Even in some of the worst years of partisan gridlock, a deadline has meant something to Congress -- until 2013. Drop-dead dates have come and gone this year, causing real-world consequences. On Jan. 1, tax rates went up not only for affluent families, but also for virtually all workers when lawmakers looked the other way and let a payroll tax cut expire. On March 1, after leaders from both parties declared that automatic, across-the-board spending cuts would never happen, they happened anyway because of inaction.

"One hundred percent of Congress opposed it, and we're doing it," said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont. "That's a sign of a dysfunctional institution."

At this time in 2011, Congress had passed 23 laws on the way toward the lowest total since those numbers began being tracked in 1948. This year, 15 have been passed so far.

Legislation favored by the left, like new gun-safety measures, has started in the Senate and has often foundered before it reached the House. Bills pushed by conservatives to restrict abortion and relax regulations to encourage oil and gas production have passed the House but have gone nowhere in the Senate.

Legislation that has reached President Barack Obama's desk this year has often been small-bore and ceremonial, like the authorization of a commemorative coin bill.

"Congress has always had this habit of going to the brink and then passing something, but in the last months, something has changed," said Justin Draeger, the president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, which has been pressing for compromise on student loans. "Recent examples of congressional inaction have left us pessimistic. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's not looking good."

The 113th Congress still has a chance to pass the most significant overhaul of the nation's immigration laws since 1986, but for now, at least, it appears deadlocked. Even saying that lawmakers have passed 15 laws may be overstating it. The first two - - raising the Federal Emergency Management Agency's borrowing authority after Hurricane Sandy and approving a broader hurricane- relief bill -- were supposed to be one bill, but they had to be split in two because House Republican leaders refused to put the full package up for a vote for fear of party divisions.

The third law raised the government's statutory borrowing limit and helped prod the Senate to pass a broad budget blueprint. But since the Senate passed its budget more than 100 days ago, Republicans have refused to allow House and Senate negotiators to try to reach a compromise budget.

Another bill was signed into law on May 1 to keep air traffic control operations working because, on March 1, Congress failed to stop across-the-board spending cuts from hitting the Federal Aviation Administration.

One of the 15 laws of 2013 specifies "the size of the precious- metal blank that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins. …

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