Voters expect the government to work, but Congress again goes for a short-term patch

Voters sent a forceful message to Washington last month: Stop fooling around and work together.

Yet for the past month, lawmakers have battled over how to fund the government, creating on Friday the prospect of a partial federal shutdown. At 11:15 p.m., with less than an hour to go before a government disruption, the Senate voted to move forward with another temporary fix, the sixth this fiscal year.

Voters elected as president outsider Donald Trump, who pledged to overhaul Washington’s ways. Polls have consistently shown the public has a dismal opinion of how Congress works. Lawmakers’ Gallup Poll approval rating inched up to 20 percent in September, a level it’s reached only three times since 2012.

“Did they hear from the American people they want to stop business as usual? I’ve yet to be convinced,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group.

Since it returned after the election, Congress has struggled to deal with its most basic task, funding the federal government. Budget-writers settled on a plan to keep most of the government open through April 28, punting further decisions until the spring.

The approach pleased no one, not even the lawmakers who helped guide the measure through the House. “The legislation before us is an abdication of responsibility for the entire Congress,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., a top House Appropriations Committee Democrat.

It’s a “Band-Aid on a gushing wound,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky.

The federal fiscal year starts each Oct. 1, and Congress is supposed to pass a dozen bills funding different parts of the government by then. It rarely does.

The stopgap funding meant that all those committees that spent 2016 holding budget hearings and writing detailed spending legislation was for naught. Those bills are stuck because once again, Congress couldn’t agree on how to craft a budget plan.

Instead, the temporary fix funds government programs largely at last year’s levels. There’s some money to help people affected by contaminated water in places such as Flint, Mich., for victims of hurricanes and other disasters, and for benefits for retired miners. Veterans affairs and military construction programs have already been funded for the entire fiscal year.

These patches reinforce voters’ poor view of Congress.

“They’re tired of this. They’re tired that nothing works the way it should,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., whose demand that the miners’ funding be extended beyond April was a major reason for the delay in approving a budget.

Republicans blamed Democrats for the latest exercise in gridlock. “Democrats wouldn’t let us pass any (spending) bills,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Democrats blamed Republicans. “We were ready” to do more comprehensive spending legislation, but Trump and his allies wanted a fresh start for the budget, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

They’re both correct. Democrats did take steps to halt consideration of several spending bills, believing their initiatives were often ignored. Republicans are eager to write their own budget next year, when they’ll control the White House as well as Congress.

To a public that’s not immersed in all this political intrigue, Congress’ latest turmoil reinforces views about the system’s breakdown in two ways, said Stan Collender, veteran Washington budget analyst.

“It’s a total breakdown in the process. Members clearly feel no need to meet deadlines on funding matters,” he said. Compromise doesn’t get them far politically.

The latest congressional chaos reinforces the notion that lawmakers do little but talk and posture. They can point fingers, said former Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican and a Washington budget expert, but in the end, “people don’t understand how Congress works.”

Republican leaders maintain the current Congress has a substantial record of achievement. It passed sweeping legislation spelling out military policy, aid to victims of the Zika virus, new guidelines for highway and education policy and more.

“Bipartisanship is not rare. It’s just rarely noted,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

Republicans see more cooperation next year, and cite the promise of having the GOP run both the White House and Congress.

“It’s a very different approach when you have all three levers,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. The threat of a presidential veto diminishes, and the president has the bully pulpit to try to persuade the public and wavering lawmakers.

That optimism gets qualified quickly. When Congress returns Jan. 3, it has to quickly assemble yet another budget to get it through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. The Senate has a Trump Cabinet to consider and confirm. Republican leaders promise to quickly deal with repealing Obamacare.

Most of the same congressional players will be back, well-schooled in how to slow the process.

“Nothing big is going to get done up here with one-party rule,” said Graham. “We’re not going to replace Obamacare without some Democratic buy-in.”

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid