Congress prepares to punt, spend the fall campaigning

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 26, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Congress is deadlocked over virtually every major issue still pending this year, including key economic matters such as a detailed federal spending plan and extending Bush-era tax cuts, yet lawmakers still hope to leave Washington by Friday and not return until mid-November.

Chances are they'll approve a stopgap budget to keep the government running, maybe vote on extending the Bush administration tax cuts and call it a day. This desire to punt on the day's biggest issue could be one more reason for voters to turn against incumbents of both parties in November.

"The public is not concerned about the specifics of the process breakdown. They just know things aren't working, either in Congress or the economy, and they want things fixed," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion.

Analysts think Republicans have a decent chance to gain the 39 seats the party needs to take control of the House of Representatives, and an outside chance of a net gain of the 10 Senate seats needed to control that chamber. Members of Congress, who returned to Washington on Sept. 13 after taking off most of August and early September, clearly want to return home to fight for their political lives. Last week, Congress produced one major piece of legislation as the House voted, largely along party lines, to send President Barack Obama a small business relief bill. The Senate, however, failed to end debate _ and thus delayed indefinitely _ efforts to revamp some immigration laws and consider the "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays in the military. It also postponed consideration of defense policy legislation until after the election.

What the public sees, polls and experts say, is a Congress that's unable to get vital work done at a time when most surveys find that about 60 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

The McClatchy-Marist poll, taken Sept. 14 to 16, found that 52 percent of Americans think the worst is yet to come economically, while 44 percent said the worst is behind us. More than half _ 56 percent _ said they disapprove of how Obama is handling the economy. The survey of 1,005 people had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 percentage points.

Other surveys this month put Congress' disapproval ratings at 70 percent or higher. People don't understand why the institution is so awash in finger-pointing rhetoric, particularly on economic matters.

"Everybody else has to have some kind of household budget. Everybody understands that," said Merle Black, a professor of politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta.

Nevertheless, there's little sense of urgency on Capitol Hill. This week, no Senate votes are scheduled until Tuesday, and the House isn't slated to begin voting again until Wednesday. Sometime before Friday, lawmakers are expected to approve the stopgap measure to keep the government running, and then probably leave until mid-November.

Congress is supposed to pass a budget in several stages each year. In the spring, it usually comes up with a general outline of how much the government can spend. Then appropriations panels write separate bills, each covering a distinct area such as defense, transportation or education, that spell out the upcoming year's spending. Legislation can also deal with tax cuts or increases.

While the goal of finishing all the spending bills by Oct. 1, the start of the federal government's fiscal year, rarely has been met since the budget-writing laws were changed in the 1970s, lawmakers usually made some progress.

Not this year, and the fate of an extension of Bush-era tax cuts, most of which expire at the end of 2010, also remains uncertain. Senate Democrats met Thursday privately, and afterward they all but abandoned making a pre-election effort because they appear unlikely to get the 60 votes needed to cut off debate.

Democratic leaders want to extend only the Bush rates that apply to individuals who earn less than $200,000 a year and joint filers making less than $250,000. They want the top rates, now 33 percent and 35 percent, to revert to 36 percent and 39.6 percent.

Many moderate Democrats, however, are balking at reinstating the higher rates, at least for a while. Thirty-one House moderates signed a Sept. 15 letter urging all the cuts be extended, and in the Senate, Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, warned that raising any rates is "the surest way for Congress to help bring about a double-dip recession."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is weighing the possibility of a middle class tax cut vote before the election, a vote some think would have political benefits for Democrats. Republicans would have to go along with the Democrats' plan, or risk being labeled opponents of a middle-class tax cut. However, such a vote also could hurt moderate Democrats who don't want to be accused of favoring higher income taxes.

The election, however, may turn on a more important question: Is the public tired of all the political games? Does it think Congress is doing its job?

After all, people don't follow the legislative process, said moderate Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla. "People care about jobs and the economy," he said. "They're not following on a daily basis what we do."

They care about perceptions and results. "They don't get the budget process at all," said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "But what they may understand is that these guys have an enormous majority, and they can't even get a budget passed." ON THE WEB

McClatchy-Marist poll on economic issues

House moderates' letter on taxes Budget history

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