Legislative graveyard? Tended by grim reaper? Welcome to Congress 2019

Democrats accuse Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of presiding over a “legislative graveyard,” while McConnell happily calls himself the “Grim Reaper” — signs that political sniping is thriving on Capitol Hill, but not much else.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and other Democratic leaders used the word “graveyard” repeatedly Tuesday in a meeting with reporters to describe the state of legislation under a Republican-controlled Senate.

Schumer’s complaint is the House keeps passing major legislation — such as measures guaranteeing insurers won’t discriminate against people with pre-existing health conditions, tougher gun background checks and stronger election security provisions — and the Senate refuses to seriously consider the bills. He’s right.

“Leader McConnell has slowly but surely turned the Senate into a legislative graveyard,” Schumer said. “where even the most consequential legislation that should be totally noncontroversial gets buried indefinitely.”

McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who has proudly dubbed himself the “Grim Reaper,” is just fine with the Democrats complaining, saying if Democrats win the White House in 2020 he will be “the guy who is going to make sure that socialism doesn’t land on the president’s desk.”

He did say Tuesday that the Senate would vote next week on the disaster aid legislation, saying he believed political posturing had tied it up.

“It’s time to quit the foolishness,” he said. “I’m not going to send our members of either parties home to these storm or flood-ravaged states without some action.”

But looking at the past as guide, it is too early to be calling the current congressional state of affairs a “legislative graveyard” at this point in the two-year cycle.

This Congress is now in its fifth month and little major legislation gets passed at the start of a new session, especially when different parties control each chamber — Democrats control the House, while Republicans run the Senate.

“You can’t judge a Congress until the end of the Congress,” Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman and founder of the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, said. “They get most things done at the end.”

Given McConnell’s insistence on blocking many Democratic initiatives, some lawmakers are skeptical that this Congress will have much to show by the end of 2020.

“Certainly, at the beginning of a new Congress, there’s presumably a lot of time to do what you want to get done,” said McConnell’s Kentucky colleague, Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat and the chair of the House Budget Committee. Yet McConnell “doesn’t seem to want to do anything, regardless, and that’s frustrating,” he said.

“I’m always hesitant to judge a Congress this early in its two-year calendar: Getting off to a slow start doesn’t preclude Congress catching up later in the year (or next),” said Sarah Binder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

“So while their record this year looks pretty slim,” she said, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a do-nothing Congress when it’s all over.” Binder said she remains skeptical that this particular Congress will pick up the pace. “Although House Democrats seem to have a steady agenda of issues to pursue, Senate Republicans seem to have little on their plate besides confirming presidential appointees, particularly judges,” she said.

On the agenda in the Senate this week are votes on three federal judges and a State Department nominee, and lawmakers from both sides are trying to iron out a disaster aid bill.

Republicans insist the emphasis on approving judges is a vitally important way of assuring that conservative values and limited government endure.

By sticking to their talking points, Hamilton said, members of Congress boost their own stature. “There are some things Congress does very well,” he said, such as reflecting constituents’ views and engaging in constituent service. As a result, he said, it’s a political plus “to make themselves look good and make the institution look bad.”

Republican senators said they’re not yet frustrated with the languid legislative pace, and that careful deliberation is important.

“We know the difficulty we’re going to have in passing anything and I think all of us are working on things to develop bipartisan agreement so you might actually have a chance of passing something, and that just takes a little more time,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican.

Congress has passed, and Trump has signed, 17 bills into law this year, none of them controversial and few of them hugely significant, but included was legislation to keep the federal government running after a 35-day shutdown.

The latest signing involved legislation backed by Democrats and Republicans that encourages the development of public shooting ranges.

One area that Democrats and Republicans agree is moving along is presidential nominations. McConnell changed the rules last month to slash the required debate time for most of President Donald Trump’s nominees from 30 hours to two.

Republicans argued the rule change will enable Trump to fill hundreds of vacancies in the federal government and court system. Democrats say most of the vacancies exist because Trump, now in his third year in office, has failed to nominate people for the positions.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she’s tried for months to move two Interior Department nominations.

She suggested it is the implacable Democratic opposition to Trump’s re-election that is creating the roadblocks. “We had the presidential election two years ago now and the fact that we are still working to fill out so many of these positions within the administration means that maybe you can’t advance the legislation as quickly as we would like,” she said. “There is plenty of blame on all sides but when it comes to slow rolling the nominations that is clearly one-sided.”

Veteran House members see quiet cooperation on a number of fronts. When House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, told Trump that $9.3 billion in a fund to help ports and harbors was not being used for that purpose, Trump ordered steps to free the money.

That effort passed DeFazio’s committee last week and is headed for action by the full House. “In the end we will do some things, despite McConnell, despite Schumer,” said DeFazio, a member of Congress since 1987.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat and a member of Congress since 1983, saw progress on spending legislation. The government’s new fiscal year begins October 1.

“The problem is the press doesn’t cover where the real work is done,” she said. “The speaker and minority leader (in the House), they work these things out.”

Still, there is recognition that Congress is failing to deliver on even some of the simplest measures. The disaster aid package has been held up for weeks among bickering between Trump and Democrats, who want more money for Puerto Rico.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, noted that McConnell did schedule a vote earlier this year on a Democratic priority: the Green New Deal. Democrats derided the vote on the sweeping climate change legislation as a show vote that McConnell hoped would put the 2020 Democratic presidential primary contenders in a tight spot. Most Democrats voted present.

“We held the vote,” Gardner said. “They’re the ones who supported it until they didn’t.”

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.
David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.