Congress Returns to Washington

The toxic partisan environment on Capital Hill is unlikely to show any signs of abating as the House and Senate return this week for the final pre-election session of the 111th Congress. President Obama and the Democrats have built a strikingly successful legislative record but it has been achieved at a high political cost.

The painfully slow recovery from the global financial crisis and Great Recession, with very high and extended unemployment, depleted private assets, and massive public deficits and debt, has left the public scared, sour, and deeply pessimistic about our economic future. As a consequence, they show little appreciation for the passage of stimulus, health reform, and financial regulation legislation and appear on the verge of holding the Democrats accountable for bad times in the November elections.

Since Republicans have thrived politically with their strategy of consistent, unified, and aggressive opposition, there is no reason to expect that to change in the weeks ahead. The Senate filibuster has proven the indispensable weapon in killing, weakening, slowing, or discrediting virtually every element of the Obama agenda. With one retiring Republican senator’s recent announcement of support, the session may begin with a successful cloture vote on a long-pending bill to provide tax cuts and loan assistance to small businesses. That may well be the only substantive piece of legislation that is passed and signed into law. The President’s new business-friendly proposals on a $50 billion national infrastructure bank, a permanent R&D tax credit, and 100 percent expensing of new business investments over the next 14 months are unlikely to go anywhere. The 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, scheduled to expire at the end of this year, will face a partisan standoff on whether the highest income households have their tax rates extended. This issue likely will not be resolved before a post-election, lame duck session of Congress.

The Senate could pass a measure banning secret holds, which is constructive but will do little to discipline the abuse of the filibuster. It is also possible that the Senate will take up ratification of the new START treaty, but with only a single Republican (Richard Lugar) on record as supporting the treaty, it is unlikely its sponsors will rustle up the necessary 2/3 vote needed for ratification. A child nutrition bill passed by the Senate could be taken up by the House, but resolving differences between the chambers before adjournment is problematic. The Senate could take up a food safety bill passed by the House but that too might have trouble clearing the hurdle of a House-Senate conference or its equivalent. Some individual appropriations bill may more forward in the House but a continuing resolution will be required to keep the government in business until after the election.

Virtually all of the 372 bills passed by the House but not taken up in the Senate will die with the end of the 111th Congress. The relatively brief (albeit painful and ugly) period of legislative productivity has largely ground to a halt. The November elections are unlikely to improve that dynamic. Indeed, they may well make it worse.