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Congress Abandons Key Bills, a Mark of Its Historic Dysfunction

It’s the time of the (election) season where Congress does everything it can to delay contentious issues until after November. So it is with two particular measures they’d rather not deal with at this time.

Senate-passed bills to cut farm subsidies and food stamps and overhaul the financially teetering Postal Service have been put on hold by House Republican leaders wary of igniting internal party fights or risking voters’ ire three months before the election.

The House is scheduled this week to take up a bill to replace the Obama administration’s offshore drilling plan, and the Senate will ignore it, and some measures to reduce government red tape. What’s not on the schedule are a farm bill important to farmers coping with a drought and a Postal Service bill dealing with politically unpopular but inevitable post office closings and a scaling back of mail delivery.

“There is no excuse not to bring the farm bill to the floor,” Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said Friday. “We’ve wasted the last two weeks on political messaging bills that are going nowhere.”

That doesn’t appear likely to change before Congress departs for a five-week August recess. In the final week before the break, the Republican-controlled House is set to vote on a bill to extend for one year the Bush-era tax cuts, including those for wealthier people. Again, that’s a bill that the Senate would reject, but it will lay down stakes as the election approaches.

The story goes on to say that the Senate has teed up messaging bills of their own, but of course the Senate already did its work and passed these two measures. So this is really on the House.

The lack of action on the farm bill, as David Rogers explains, is a brand-new thing, and not just because of the drought. No other time in the last 50 years has the House failed to bring up a farm bill voted out of the Agriculture Committee. 38 Republicans actually signed a letter begging the leadership to schedule the farm bill, but to no avail. Republicans want to punish the poor by cutting food stamps, but they don’t want the public to know about it by doing it right before an election. And of course, there’s the historic Midwest drought, though farmers may be better off with the direct payments under the status quo – assuming they extend those programs in a continuing resolution – than under the new regime.

You do have to appreciate longtime journo David Rogers’ frustration at seeing dysfunction on display here:

There’s little institutional memory left in the Capitol — or perspective on the accumulation of cans rolling down the road these days. But the farm bill delay is new ground for any Congress […]

If pushed into November’s lame-duck session, farmers will join Medicare physicians whose pay will be running out, idled workers worried about jobless benefits, and very likely, millions of families faced with expiring tax breaks.

For all the backslapping over the recent transportation bill, that measure expires in just 15 months. The Democratic Senate no longer even tries to do 12-month appropriations bills. Already in mid-July — when the floor used to be humming — the “smart money” is plotting a stop-gap continuing resolution to get to November or beyond.

Such a CR was once treated as a backstop by the Appropriations committees. Now the practice is so prevalent in all areas of government that the letters might stand for “Congress Retreats.”

Not a happy man.

The delay on the postal bill is even more unconscionable. Because of inaction, the postal service will almost certainly default, and for no good reason. Their obligations are almost entirely artificial, arising from constraints put on them by Congress that they now refuse to take off.

Congress requires the Post Office to make inordinately huge pension-plan payments, for reasons which nobody can really understand. But in the final analysis, USPS pensions are a government obligation, and it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference whether they come out of a well-funded pension plan, a badly-funded pension plan, or just out of US government revenues.

What does make a lot of difference is the degree to which the Post Office is hamstrung by Congress. There’s still room for the Postal Service to reorient itself and become a successful 21st-century utility — but there’s no way that’s going to happen if it’s constantly on the back foot and if Congress prevents it from entering new businesses, possibly including banking.

As Felix Salmon writes, if Congress can’t sweat the small stuff, what’s the hope of them coming to a decent solution – or any solution – on the fiscal cliff? We throw around words like “worst ever” far too loosely, but in the case of the 112th Congress, it really does apply.

UPDATE: House Republicans also sidelined a bill repealing the Administration’s contraception mandate from the health care bill. But that says more about hiding the true agenda rather than any ideological awakening.

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David Dayen

David Dayen