Americans regularly bash a “do-nothing” Congress, and the Senate is poised to validate that perception yet again during its final workdays before a seven-week recess – one of the longest in modern legislative history.
From funding the U.S. military to fighting the Zika virus to preventing suspected terrorists from legally purchasing firearms, the Senate is expected to adjourn later this week, leaving weighty issues unaddressed and major legislation in limbo.
With the Republican and Democratic national conventions looming this month, lawmakers will abandon Washington well in advance of their usual August recess and will not return to work until September 6.
When the Senate gaveled in Monday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged his colleagues to make good use of time that is running short.
“This week offers the opportunity for all of us, and for our country, to move forward,” the Kentucky Republican said.
“This week the Republican leader will continue with the pointless approach that has been a hallmark of his time as the leader,” predicted Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Among the bills that could reach President Barack Obama’s desk this week are two health initiatives: one on mental health and another on opioid addictions.
Stall on Appropriations
But McConnell’s goal of an orderly appropriations process that funds the entire U.S. government well in advance of the beginning of the next fiscal year, which starts October 1, has all but collapsed.
A two-year bipartisan budget deal enacted late last year was supposed to give Washington a reprieve from major fiscal fights by setting total federal spending levels. At the time, Democrats cheered an end to automatic, across-the-board cuts to domestic programs; Republicans cheered a reprieve from cuts to military programs.
Nearly a year later, Democrats and Republicans still disagree on the proportion of spending for defense and non-defense activities.
The annual defense appropriations bill has stalled on the Senate floor, with appropriations for other areas of government log jammed behind it.
Meanwhile, bipartisan concurrence on the need for funds to fight Zika devolved into bitter partisan fights over funding for an abortion provider and whether Confederate battle flags may be flown at national cemeteries.
Similarly, bipartisan agreement that terror suspects shouldn’t be able to buy guns in the United States evaporated amid partisan disagreements about the scope and enforcement of the proposed ban.
Other bills withering in the Senate include a reform of federal prison sentencing guidelines and an effort to streamline the approval of new medicines.
Low Approval Ratings
A recent poll showed only 16 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, a number that has hovered between 11 and 20 percent in recent years.
Despite widespread public dissatisfaction with Congress, Americans typically send their representatives and senators back to Washington time and time again. In most election years, at least 90 percent of lawmakers seeking reelection are rewarded with another term in office.