The least productive Congress on record returns to work this week, planning to work even less in this midterm election year than it did last year. Republican congressional leaders may consider that smart politics, but it's not good for a nation with so many issues that demand attention. The most pressing for many jobless Americans is the extension of long-term unemployment benefits that expired in December, hurting families with nowhere else to turn and the overall economy.
President Barack Obama is expected to renew his push today for a three-month extension of the long-term benefits, and progressive groups are holding rallies around the country and launching a television ad campaign to persuade Republicans to agree. House Speaker John Boehner says Republicans will agree only if the $6.5 billion cost is made up elsewhere, and Democrats should try to meet that demand. But that has not been the policy in the past, and the long-term unemployed should not be pawns in another partisan fight over the federal deficit.
More than 1.3 million Americans, including nearly 90,000 Floridians, have lost their modest unemployment checks as a result of the expiration of emergency benefits. The situation is exacerbated in Florida, a particularly stingy state where benefits are capped at 16 weeks. The economy is on the rebound, and a three-month extension of long-term benefits is reasonable.
Extending unemployment benefits is not the only essential issue demanding immediate attention in Washington. Congress has a week to approve a spending plan that carries out the budget compromise approved in December to avoid another government shutdown. While that appears likely, it is less certain that Congress can avoid another stalemate over raising the debt ceiling before that cap is hit in March and the nation can no longer borrow money to pay its bills. This is another manufactured crisis that should be avoided, and Boehner will have to channel his frustration with tea party Republicans into action.
There are broader policy issues that have lingered for far too long. A farm bill remains hung up over a partisan fight over food stamps, with Republicans unconscionably pushing for a cut of up to 10 times what Democrats will accept. The House also has refused to budge on immigration reform since the Senate approved a comprehensive approach last year that includes a long path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. House Republicans are still pondering a piecemeal approach of individual bills on such consensus issues as more visas for highly skilled foreign workers. While Obama is open to that approach, its success again depends on Boehner's willingness to stand up to tea party supporters even at the risk of his speakership.
If there is a silver lining in all of this inaction, it is that House Republican leaders have signaled they are prepared to shift away from their constant calls for repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Repeal will not happen while Obama is president, and the focus should be on improving health care reform and ensuring the system works instead of trying to sabotage it.
While 2013 set a modern record for the fewest federal laws passed at 65, this year could produce even fewer. But voters will be judging members of Congress this fall by what they have accomplished, and maintaining gridlock is not a compelling bumper sticker slogan.