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House adjourns after few fall work days, punting on unfinished business

 

The House adjourned Friday at its earliest date before an election, finishing legislative business 46 days before Election Day.

Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder (R) gaveled out the day’s last vote at 12:12 p.m. on Friday afternoon, marking a historic moment for the House of Representatives, which has not adjourned this early before an election in over 50 years.

All told, lawmakers gathered for a grand total of eight legislative days since leaving for their annual summer break in early August. Those eight days all took place this month, following the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

House members leave Washington with major business left unfinished, too. No progress was made on undoing the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the combination of automatic spending cuts and tax hikes set to spring into place in January. And lawmakers went home to campaign for re-election without having resolved their differences to pass a farm bill.

The historic nature of the adjournment was not lost on House Democrats, who held an event to chastise Republicans for "cutting and running" in the face of some of the largest economic issues facing our country in decades.

"This is simply irresponsible, and Republicans ought to come back and finish their work, not cut and run and walk away from the American people," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said at the event, "Shame on them, shame on them for abandoning our farmers, our economy, and families that need us to act."

The harsh reality of adjourning today is that Congress will have more work to do during its lame duck session – the time between an election and the inauguration of the next Congress – than in any post-election session in recent history.  The laundry list of items that needs to be dealt with has been deemed the "fiscal cliff," simply because if Congress does not act the US economy will likely plunge back into recession according to most economists.

Included in the items that Congress needs to act on is the Bush-era tax cuts, which are scheduled to expire at the end of the year.  Congress also needs to decide what to do about automatic, across-the-board, cuts that are scheduled to take place on January 2nd as a result of the failure of the supercommittee. 

Congress will also need to pass a farm bill before year's end, and lawmakers will have to decide whether they want to extend the payroll tax cut for another year, even though all indications are that they will let that expire.

But instead of dealing with these issues before the November elections, there has been no tangible toward compromise by either side, and Republicans in the House have been focusing more on messaging bills that they can cite while campaigning back home in their districts.

Among those messaging bills was a Republican resolution passed Thursday to condemn what they allege is President Obama’s waiver of welfare reform’s work requirements. Even Republican vice presidential nominee Rep Paul Ryan (R-WI) made it back to vote for the resolution, which was based on a dubious claim about the nature of the waiver authorized by Obama.

Rep John Larson (D-CT) cited the bill as an example of the Republicans "cutting and running."

"The only requirement for work is that Republicans stay here and work instead of cutting and running," Larson said.

To that end, between August, September, and October of this year, the House will have only been in session a total of 12 days.

While those three months of the year typically carry a smaller workload during election years (House members need to campaign every two years to hold onto their jobs), the 12 legislative days the House is in session during that three-month period is less than that same period in any other presidential election year in over three decades. 

Comparing it to recent history, the 12 days in 2012 is less than the 19 days the House was in session during those same three months in 2008 (during which the financial crisis resulted in more days than were previously scheduled), and the 20 days it was in session during that same time in 2004.

DAYS IN SESSION DURING PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION YEARS (AUGUST, SEPTEMBER, OCTOBER)

2012 (scheduled):

  • August - 4
  • September - 8
  • October - 0
  • TOTAL - 12

2008:

  • August - 1
  • September - 16
  • October - 2
  • TOTAL - 19

2004:

  • August - 0
  • September - 14
  • October - 6
  • TOTAL - 20

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) defended the schedule on Friday, citing the passage of Republican bills to extend all of the Bush-era tax cuts, and a bill to rework the automatic defense cuts, as examples of how Republicans are passing legislation that the Senate refuses to consider.

"We have done our work, but here Senate Democrats and a President, where is their responsibility?" Boehner said, "Where is their leadership? It just doesn't exist."

House Democratic leaders sent Boehner a letter on Thursday asking the speaker to cancel the adjournment so they could address the fiscal cliff, saying leaving DC "would be a dereliction of our duty to lead; it does not honor our responsibility to the American people."

Boehner turned the letter back against Senate Democrats, repeating a common refrain in the political game of ping-pong in which both sides blame the other house of Congress for their inability to act.

"When you think about the letter that they sent to me, about us not doing our work, how about the 40 jobs bills that are sitting in the United States Senate," Boehner said today.

The back and forth, which leads to nothing getting done, has taken its toll on Congress as a whole.  Recent approval ratings for Congress float just above 10 percent, and members are going back to their constituents knowing they have sent fewer bills to the President's desk than any Congress since World War II.

Currently, the House is scheduled to return to work on Nov. 13, with 12 legislative days on the calendar before the end of the year.  Fewer than two weeks of work could be an impossibly short amount of time to finish addressing so many issues, considering the supercommittee failed to reach a consensus after almost four months of negotiations.