WASHINGTON – The Congress is in, but it's far from lawmaking.
For the next 3½ sweltering weeks on Capitol Hill, lawmakers will look busy, say many words and lob blame at each other. They will even cast votes on such weighty matters as health care reform, taxes and more. But they're not expected to pass much legislation, opting instead for what amounts to campaigning from the televised House and Senate floors, or anywhere on the stately campus where a microphone might be live.
Just back from a weeklong July Fourth break, they're not even pretending to govern. The schedule and all of the body language says they're marking time: The Republican-led House this week got to work debating and voting on yet another doomed measure to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law. The Democratic-led Senate, meanwhile, is debating whether to give businesses a tax cut if they expand their payrolls, and whether to extend some or all of former President George W. Bush's tax cuts — more measures not expected to go anywhere.
"This will be an extraordinary four-week period because we are going to work every week these four weeks," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer said with a heavy dollop of sarcasm. "Hopefully members are up to the challenge of this rigorous schedule."
Tieless and sporting a white baseball cap emblazoned with the South Carolina state logo, Sen. Lindsey Graham acknowledged, "We're talking about the election in political terms rather than trying to find ways to solve the nation's problems."
"I'd actually rather spend the week talking about something that could result in us getting our job done, but if we're not going to do that, I'd just as soon talk about good tax policy and bad tax policy as anything else," said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the Senate's liaison to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Asked what Congress will have accomplished after this four-week period, he smiled and said, "I guess you could argue, not very much."
Lots of Americans might not notice. Voter interest generally doesn't pick up until the fall in election years, so lawmakers are trying to do no harm before the high campaign season that starts Labor Day. But there is plenty of precedent for passing significant legislation during this period, including the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and welfare reform in 1996.
Much remains hanging and in sharp dispute, a now-old story of a Congress fraught with partisan discord over sweeping fiscal policy in the wake of recession. Polls show that voters don't like the intransigence and are still jittery over joblessness.
But the nation's top politicians have gambled that resolving major disputes over taxes, spending, borrowing, immigration or farm policy would sit worse with core supporters than putting off those decisions until after the election. Congress' top job, passing 12 appropriations bills that fund the government, sits in limbo.
Even a bill to authorize defense policy, which traditionally has bipartisan backing, is unlikely to come up in the Senate for a vote before Election Day. It's open to hundreds of amendments and the distinct possibility that Republicans would try to score political points against Obama on national security.
"I just don't know when we can do it," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, who sets the floor schedule, said Tuesday. "Everyone knows how much we have to do, and procedurally, because of all the obstacles that I have to jump through as the leader, it makes it very, very difficult."
So Congress has mired itself in a faux legislative session, loudly holding court before going home in August to campaign. Taxpayers, of course, foot the more than $2 billion-a-year bill to run Congress whether lawmakers hold session, pass bills or not. But in July 2012, it seems a bad investment.
Running the House costs about $24 million a week, not counting Capitol Police and other joint costs, according to the Congressional Research Service. This week, members returned from their July Fourth holiday to yet again debate repealing Obama's landmark health care overhaul, following the Supreme Court decision upholding its constitutionality. A vote is set for Wednesday; like the roughly 30 previous votes to repeal all or parts of the law, this measure stands no chance of passing the Senate. The House then shifts to a mineral resources bill before heading home Thursday night.
"We are wasting time," thundered Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
In the Senate, where costs run about $17 million a week, members are debating a bill that would slice taxes for businesses that hire new workers and buy major new equipment. The House, which has to originate tax bills, has passed a broader business tax cut with no hiring requirements. Neither will be accepted by the other. Both proposals would be paid for by enlarging federal deficits — something neither party wants to answer for on the campaign trail.
But no sooner than the debate opened, it turned into a proxy over the Bush-era tax cuts and Obama's proposal to let them expire for the wealthiest Americans. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the Finance Committee's senior Republican, took the floor immediately to say he would offer an amendment extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone, including Americans who earn more than $250,000 a year.
"I think it is a good idea to talk about taxes this week," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.