Washington — Like most members of Congress, Connecticut’s lawmakers will spend August campaigning, and if they are lucky, spending a little vacation time with family and friends.
But lawmakers left Washington on a month-long break with a massive list of unfinished business, and they are not likely to whittle it down, especially since the House is scheduled to be in session only 13 days between now and November.
“Judged by productivity, this will have to go down as one of the worst Congresses in modern history,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Congress’ list of unfinished business includes a defense bill that would authorize billions of dollars in contracts for Connecticut’s defense industry; a farm bill with changes to the dairy program sought by the state’s farmers; a federal budget that would continue funding the U.S. government past Sept. 30; a transportation bill that would funnel millions of dollars to the state for road and bridge projects and the reauthorization of a violence against women bill.
Two legacy bills sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who is retiring after this session of Congress, have also faltered. One is a cybersecurity bill that would allow law enforcement to protect critical companies against cyber attacks, and the other would try to save the financially strapped U.S. Postal Service and postpone a curtailment of services and shutdown of facilities.
“This is one of those days I fear for our country, and I’m not proud of our United States Senate,” Lieberman said last week when there were not enough votes to end a filibuster on the cybersecurity bill.
Congress’ greatest failings concern the extension of Bush-era tax breaks set to expire at the end of the year and an agreement on budget cuts that would avoid “sequestration,” or $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts. Half of those savings would occur in the Pentagon’s budget.
In a symbolic vote last week, Connecticut’s Democratic House members voted unanimously against adjourning for the month of August.
They blame the Republican-controlled House for the inaction, while Republicans blame the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Galston said both parties are to blame for the gridlock. “This Congress has cared more about politics than policy.”
Even “routine, or at least negotiable” legislation like the farm and transportation bills got caught up in the partisan fray, Galston said.
Meanwhile business groups are trying to prod an almost moribund Congress to action.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says uncertainty over taxes and other issues are keeping businesses from hiring and growing. The National Association of Manufacturers warns about a “looming fiscal abyss,” caused by inaction on taxes and the budget that’s “taking a toll on growth.”
“Manufacturers need certainty,” NAM President Jay Timmons said.
The National Milk Producers Federation Monday asked dairy farmers in Connecticut and across the nation to use the recess to lobby lawmakers to approve a final farm bill “with the hope that Congress can be spurred to action after Labor Day.”
“We are approaching a crisis comparable to or worse than that of 2009, when dairy farmers lost $20 billion in equity, and thousands of farmers went out of business,” said federation President Jerry Kozak.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said on Monday he’s heard from angry constituents.
“People are just boiling mad the to-do list is put on hold,” he said.
Congress is likely to approve a six-month continuation of funding for the federal government when it returns from its August recess. It may also approve a farm bill and a defense authorization bill.
But, despite growing pressures, lawmakers are not likely to finish their work before Election Day.
With that in mind, Lieberman is working with other senators to try to find a way to push the sequestration deadline some months into next year.
If President Obama is re-elected, some unfinished business may be taken care of in a lame-duck session of Congress after the election.
But, especially if Republican Mitt Romney wins the White House, GOP members of Congress are likely to insist on a delay until after a new president and Congress are inaugurated next year.
“Postponement is going to be the name of the game,” Galston said.
Despite historic disapproval ratings for Congress, Galston said the do-nothing session won’t hurt lawmakers seeking re-election.
“They are going to tell voters, ‘I stopped bad things from happening to you,’” Galston said.
But Courtney said damage has been done.
“Going home with this state of play is not good for an incumbent,” he said.