Editorials

Congress at work, or hardly working?

Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan approved a work schedule for 2016 that calls for only 111 days in session.
Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan approved a work schedule for 2016 that calls for only 111 days in session. AP

To judge from next year’s schedule, members of Congress aren’t even bothering to pretend that they’re doing their jobs. The Senate plans to spend no more than 143 days at work in 2016, and the House calendar is even sleepier: only 111 days in session, roughly two days a week.

Some of this is routine for a presidential election year. Members want to attend party conventions and spend time in their districts as they run to keep their seats — on the public’s dime, of course. Then, too, it’s President Obama’s last year in office, and Republicans in charge of Capitol Hill don’t dare get caught collaborating with the current occupant of the White House. Not if they want to keep their jobs.

But this remarkably short schedule is a disservice to taxpayers. While members are looking out for their political well-being, the public’s business is being neglected. And there is plenty of public business to attend to, but members don’t want to face up to it.

Immigration reform? Why bother? Much better to attack the president and file lawsuits than to pass a law that might do some good. Even though it’s a hot-button issue and all sides agree that the current law is inadequate, Congress is unlikely to act next year. Or even try.

The attacks in Paris have suddenly brought renewed attention to the increased risk posed by terrorists based in the Middle East. But don’t look for Congress to finally take up President Obama’s request for new war-powers authorizations to wage the fight against the Islamic State, which he issued in February. It’s been consigned to the legislative equivalent of sleeping with the fishes. Much better to rant and rail about the president’s foreign policy than to actually vote up or down on his plan to fight ISIS.

Inequality, anyone? At least some Republican presidential candidates agree with Democrats that this is a real issue lawmakers should tackle. But the chances that Congress will dare to vote on, say, raising the minimum wage next year are just about zero.

Even routine business was neglected this year, and 2016 won’t be better. The Senate has confirmed 135 Obama executive nominees this year, but many more are languishing in Congress. One of these is for the vacant post of undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial crimes, for which Mr. Obama nominated someone in April. By comparison, in George W. Bush’s seventh year, a Democratic Senate confirmed 234 nominees in 2007. Meanwhile, only 10 judicial vacancies have been confirmed this year, leaving 66 benches open, the slowest pace for confirmations in more than half a century.

This is not what Sen. Mitch McConnell promised when he took over as Senate majority leader, nor what Rep. Paul Ryan offered when he became Speaker of the House earlier this year. They deserve kudos for passing a big budget deal last month, but how can they fulfill their promise of restoring smooth functioning in Congress when their work calendar offers so few opportunities to get anything done?

The standard reply from members to this criticism is that they want to spend less time in the nation’s capital, which they profess to detest, and more time back home talking to “the people.” Sounds great, but the result, besides the legislative standstill, is a public approval rating for Congress that stands at 13 percent, near historic lows.

Maybe “the people” prefer to have their members stay in Washington and get some work done on Capitol Hill. That, after all, is the job they ran for.

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