Having shut down the federal government, failed to agree on a farm bill and immigration reform, and ignored Florida's concerns about skyrocketing flood insurance rates, members of Congress are about to head home to the 9 in 100 Americans who somehow think they are doing a bang-up job. As the least accomplished session in history looks to break for the holidays, there is still hope of a modest budget agreement that would prevent another government shutdown. But it's worth calling attention to the pain this partisan gridlock is causing Americans.
This is the final week that the House and Senate are scheduled to meet in session at the same time, and there's every indication that members will aim small and run out the clock as they pack for the airport. Though some congressional leaders continue working for at least short-term deals on farm policy and defense, time is short and the list of unfinished business is long and disappointing.
The 113th Congress has passed 55 laws this year. It would add at least one more if the Senate agrees to extend a ban on plastic and other makes of firearms that cannot be detected by airport X-ray machines, as the House did last week. That still puts this Congress on schedule to be the least productive ever. And it caps a year of time wasted on small-bore priorities and self-serving politics. Meanwhile the biggest issues facing the nation dangle on the vine:
The budget. Congressional leaders are looking for a two-year deal that would prevent another shutdown in January and soften the damage of across-the-board spending cuts imposed after the last major budget impasse. The lack of fiscal predictability has made business and consumers alike hold back on spending and investment, which in turn has sapped the economic recovery.
Farm bill. The demand of House Republicans to slash food stamps by $40 billion — 10 times the Senate target of $4 billion — means that even if a deal is done, it could leave millions of needy people without supplemental food aid. And if Congress fails to act, the expiration of dairy price supports could double the price of milk to about $7 a gallon. Forget about the holiday hot chocolate.
Jobless benefits. About 1.3 million Americans will lose their jobless benefits unless Congress extends an emergency program by Dec. 28 that's meant to track the long-term unemployed back into the workforce. This would hurt needy Americans and shave up to a quarter percentage point off the nation's economic output next year. Another 800,000 out-of-work Americans would lose their benefits in the coming months, making it less likely they will find new jobs.
Immigration. The House is stalling immigration reform by refusing to embrace the Senate's sweeping, bipartisan approach and instead approaching the issue in piecemeal fashion. That tactic may play to conservatives who want border security only and not a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. But it also keeps 11 million people already here in legal limbo, and it doesn't bring this underground economy into the open.
It's no wonder that Congress' job approval rating is the lowest since pollsters first asked the question nearly 40 years ago. Americans should give their elected representatives an earful during this holiday break. Their inaction in Washington has real consequences, and they need to hear it from the folks at home.