As Congress returns to work, politics is high on the agenda

The Capitol in Washington D.C.
The Capitol in Washington D.C. McClatchy

Congress returned Monday for a two-week session with a schedule that’s short on substantive action and long on political theater ahead of November’s midterm elections.

Rather than go out in a blaze of legislative accomplishment before the Nov. 4 elections, members of the House of Representatives and the Senate appear satisfied with doing the bare minimum required before returning to their districts to campaign.

Keeping the federal government operating beyond Sept. 30, extending or shutting an agency that helps U.S. businesses sell their products overseas and whether to formally weigh in on the recent violent activities of the Islamic State top the agenda.

After that, the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-run House will conduct a series of votes and debates designed more to appeal to each party’s political base than to become law.

For example, the Senate was scheduled to vote Monday on a Democratic-sponsored measure to consider a constitutional amendment to the nation’s campaign finance laws, a nonstarter among Republicans.

House Republicans are slated to fold their previously passed jobs measures into one bill and put it up to a vote during the two-week session. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California told fellow Republicans last week, speaking of the Senate majority leader, that the vote is designed “to remind Harry Reid of our positive solutions and foster job creation.”

“Do a quick kick and get out of town,” said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan government-watchdog group. “This has kind of become the new regular order. It’s not a good thing, but it’s better than a shutdown.”

As early as this week, lawmakers will vote on a short-term continuing resolution to fund the government past the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year and avoid a repeat of last October’s 16-day partial government shutdown.

The measure once again signifies the failure of Democrats and Republicans in the two chambers to reach consensus on serious budgetary issues and punts the responsibility of passing a budget into the hands of a post-election lame-duck Congress – or even a new Congress in 2015.

Though the resolution is expected to pass, there might be some problems along the way. One of them could be the federal Export-Import Bank, which would run out of funding if Congress fails to reauthorize it by Sept. 30.

The bank is the bane of conservatives, who consider it a testament to “crony capitalism” and a heavy-handed institution that picks business winners and losers.

There’s bipartisan support for the bank among Democratic and Republican leaders, though they disagree on the length of the reauthorization.

Republican leaders prefer a short-term renewal, figuring that would be most palatable to tea party and more conservative lawmakers. Democrats support a seven-year reauthorization.

Debate over the fate of the bank might slow the glide path to passage of a budget bill as conservative groups pressure like-minded lawmakers to block reauthorization.

Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, announced its opposition Monday to reauthorizing the bank and warned that it would include the issue as a key vote on its legislative scorecard.

With House members and senators assembled in Washington for the first time since late July, both chambers are expected to discuss the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the deadly rise of the Islamic State.

But it’s unclear whether lawmakers will do anything more than talk and hold hearings such as the Sept. 16 House Foreign Affairs Committee session on the Islamic State, in which Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to testify.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., announced his intention to introduce legislation that would authorize the use of military force against international terrorist groups, including the Islamic State. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said he’d introduce a bill that would give President Barack Obama clear authority to order airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria.

Barring anything from Tuesday’s meeting between Obama and congressional leaders on the Islamic State, it’s doubtful that either chamber will take up the measures soon.

McCarthy, in his memo to House Republicans, made no mention of action on Wolf’s proposal, and Senate Democratic aides cast doubt Monday on whether the Senate will act on Nelson’s measure before November’s elections.

Even if it fails to do anything specific regarding the Islamic State, Congress is accomplishing something simply by talking about it, according to Anthony Cordesman, a former senior Defense Department official who’s with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“If members of Congress send a positive signal that they approve a use of force within reasonable limits against the Islamic State, that’s a very useful signal even if there is no vote or a bill,” Cordesman said. “The more of those voices that make it clear that they don’t support the president’s program in detail but support a U.S. commitment in dealing with the Islamic State, the easier it will be for the president to act in search of support from Europe, Arab states.”

A vigorous discussion from Capitol Hill can help counteract the notion that the United States is “too war-weary to act; the president doesn’t have the support he needs to act decisively; the shock of Iraq and Afghanistan is paralyzing U.S. action,” Cordesman said.

“The more U.S. messages that counter that set of attitudes within the U.S. and overseas, the better,” he added.