WASHINGTON -- The most disliked, unproductive Congress in decades planned to leave Washington this week until after the November election, departing without agreements on virtually every big issue it deals with: taxes, defense, spending, farms, even post office policy.
Lawmakers spent Thursday pointing fingers and charging opponents with cynical political posturing. Among Congress’ last decisions was a characteristic 2012 judgment: Punt action until later. It will let the farm bill, a broad measure that sets the nation’s agriculture and food and nutrition assistance policies, expire Sept. 30.
Congress also exits without any serious effort to edge away from the “fiscal cliff,” the prospect of economy-damaging budget chaos if it doesn’t act by year’s end. Bush-era tax cuts are due to expire, and automatic spending cuts will take effect unless alternatives are passed.
The public is noticing, as the legislative failures stir uncertainty and further roil an already-weak economy. This Congress’ approval ratings were stuck at 13 percent in a Gallup survey Sept. 6-9, the lowest the pollster has ever logged this late in an election year since such measurements began in 1974.
Yet lawmakers are slinking out of town, after a September session that was on and off for less than two weeks, following a summer recess that ran from Aug. 3 to Sept. 10. Congress is expected to return Nov. 13.
“Leaving town in disgrace,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a 30-year congressional veteran.
“This is the most dysfunctional Congress I can remember,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan consumer-advocacy group. “I’ve never seen Capitol Hill work so poorly.”
Republicans and Democrats agree on this much: The inertia was spawned by the unusually hostile partisanship that’s come to dominate political dialogue and debate.
The result of years-long trends, the parties have been all but purged of philosophical outliers. New England and mid-Atlantic Republican moderates have nearly vanished, and the centrist Democratic Blue Dog caucus shrank from roughly 54 members in the last Congress to fewer than half that now.
That’s hardened the ideological lines, and leaders have had to become defenders of those ideologies instead of the consensus-builders they’ve been in the past. They’ve also spent much of the year blaming the other side.
“I have always said the sooner we can do it, the better. There is no reason why we should inch closer to a cliff,” said California’s Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives. “The sooner that we can instill confidence in the economy that we can get this job done. And President Obama supported that one year ago, and the Republicans walked away.”
No, the Republicans counter, it’s the Democrats who are stubborn.
“We’ve got multiple crisis-level issues to deal with. And yet Democrats don’t want to do a thing,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Thursday in a floor speech. “Never before has a president and a Senate done so little to confront challenges so great.”
Efforts are quietly afoot to find some common ground. The farm bill is expected to pass later this year. In the Senate, a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” has been talking regularly about fiscal compromise, holding dinners and bringing in dozens of other senators. Congressional leaders are not involved.