Milbank: Capitol looks great; it’s Congress that’s in sad shape

By Dana Milbank

The smell of fresh paint greeted lawmakers reacquainting themselves with their workplace after their seven-week break.

The scaffolding was coming down, revealing a gleaming dome and, underneath it, restored friezes, oil paintings and statues. The Capitol has been returned to its former glory.

If only they could do the same to Congress.

After their seven-week recess, which was the longest break since at least 1960, the people’s representatives in the House are back for just four weeks before recessing again until the election — and there has been talk of cutting those four weeks of work to three or even two.

They might as well go home, because the House to-do list could end up looking something like this: Impeach the IRS commissioner. Punish the Democrats. Sue the Saudis.

This is how Donald Trump happened.

Americans are worried and angry about the big issues: stagnant wages, immigration, trade deals, health care, entitlement programs, the Zika virus. Yet the best Congress can do for the moment is to keep the government running on autopilot for a few more months, and even this isn’t guaranteed.

With three weeks to go in the fiscal year, Congress has enacted not one of the 12 annual appropriations bills (the House has passed six). While leaders struggle to pass a temporary “continuing resolution,” Republicans fight among themselves about how long it should last and hard-liners threaten to derail it by adding language banning Syrian refugees.

As Republicans sat down for their caucus meeting Wednesday morning, the conversation wandered — this member’s new grandchild, that member’s engagement, various anecdotes and talking points. GOP leaders held a news conference after the meeting, at which they voiced enthusiastic support for … a new soapbox that had appeared over the recess to help shorter members of the caucus be seen behind the lectern.

“You could put three people on that thing,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said upon entering the room and spying the new piece of furniture.

“Gee whiz!” exclaimed Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kansas, trying it out.

With so little happening, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to create the illusion of activity, asserting that in this Congress “a total of 219 bills have been enacted into law. That’s an increase over the 25-year average.”

Actually, the average number of bills enacted into law in previous Congresses going back to 1991 is 435 — double the current output. McCarthy’s spokesman said the claim was based on when Congress went on its long summer holiday. But as of now, McCarthy’s 219 bills are well below the 25-year average of 257 enacted at this point by previous Congresses. And most have been minor “suspension” bills, such as post-office namings.

“People want a positive vision and a clear direction for solving the country’s big problems,” Ryan declared at his news conference.

But instead, they’re getting:

An attempt to impeach the IRS commissioner. Some hard-liners, still angry about the IRS’ treatment of conservative groups, are trying to force leaders to hold a vote to impeach the current commissioner, John Koskinen, who took over after the alleged wrongdoing occurred.

A bid to punish two dozen House Democrats, led by civil rights icon John Lewis, who staged a sit-in on the House floor in June to protest Republicans’ refusal to bring up gun-control legislation.

Legislation allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in federal courts, a bill with no chance of getting enough votes.

Instead, House Republicans could spend their fleeting time at work resolving an impasse blocking funds to fight the Zika infection. The Senate reached a bipartisan deal in May to provide $1.1 billion for the effort, but the agreement fell apart when House Republicans added a provision restricting funds from going to Planned Parenthood.

At Wednesday’s news conference, CNN’s Manu Raju asked Ryan why he wouldn’t accept a “clean bill” without the poison pill.

“Look, give me a break,” Ryan said, blaming the Senate.

But even some of Ryan’s Republicans aren’t giving him a break. Rep. Richard Hanna, R-New York, told Bloomberg’s Billy House that “we become obstructionists” with the Planned Parenthood gambit.

And Rep. David Jolly, R-Florida, carried a jar full of Florida mosquitoes onto the House floor. “During the seven weeks … we were gone, cases of Zika rose from 4,000 to by some estimates over 16,000 in the country,” he said. His constituents “are demanding action and they are seeing inaction, and in that inaction they are angry.”

Yes, but have they seen that new soapbox for members of Congress? Gee whiz!

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

RGB version
Editorial cartoons for Saturday, Nov. 27

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

toon
Editorial: Small Business Saturday a focus for local economy

Shopping locally supports your community’s businesses and employees and offers extraordinary gifts.

Dan Hazen
Dan Hazen: Climate migration gets thoughts moving on cause

We’re watching plants and animals head to healthier climes, but should corporations get the blame?

Kathy Coffey Soberg
Kathy Coffey Solberg: Holidays can be source, fix to pressure

The season can add to our sense of being overwhelmed, but it also offers ways to cope with that feeling.

Comment: Political phrases, like ‘Let’s go, Brandon,’ slippery

They allow for caustic language to go mainstream, but often are co-opted by those on the other side.

Comment: 5 supply chain myths show problem’s complexity

It won’t be quickly solved by self-driving trucks, moving parts-making back to the U.S. or other suggestions.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Friday, Nov. 26

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

A man crosses the road under stoplights at Casino Road and Evergreen Way on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019 in Everett, Wash. The lights at Casino Road and Evergreen Way are being considered for controversial red-light traffic cameras. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Editorial: Train red-light cameras on problem intersections

The cameras, planned for seven Everett locations, should help prevent costly and deadly accidents.

This is what viewers of the public meeting held by the Washington State Redistricting Commission saw during most of its five-hour session. (Washington State Redistricting Commission)
Editorial: Finish state’s redistricting work out in the open

With a panel unable to finish on time and in public, the job is left to the state Supreme Court.

Most Read