The following editorial appeared in Monday's Washington Post:
Congress is now in recess, but it hardly matters. It achieves so little in session that much of the time it could just as usefully stay home. In theory it still could compile a decent record, but only by a remarkable turnaround. The parties aren't legislating so much as pretending to do so while marking time until the fall campaign. Neither currently has the votes to have its way; each plausibly thinks it has a chance to pick up the necessary seats in November. Until then, the main objective of each side is to obstruct the other's agenda while avoiding the charge of obstructionism. They spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to score political points while looking less idle than they are. The trade vote in the House last week was the rare exception to the rule, a substantive vote in a Congress given over to show.
The members have before them a spread of modest but important bills -- on gun control, the minimum wage, regulation of managed care, campaign finance and even reauthorization of the main forms of federal aid to education -- that ought to pass but appear to be going nowhere. The gun controls are a fraction of what ought to be imposed. The minimum wage increase would mostly restore past purchasing power. The managed care bill would do more to legitimize cost containment than to curb it. The campaign finance bill speaks only to the most egregious of current abuses; the education reauthorization should be routine. Yet they can't enact even these -- or haven't so far. Nor are the stymied worthy bills the worst of it.
Nothing or next to nothing is being done to strengthen the finances of Social Security and Medicare against the baby boomers' impending retirement, and little to rationalize future defense policy. The Republicans continue to insist on a make-believe fiscal policy. The familiar fable is that they can, too, cut taxes, finance the boomers' old age and increase defense and selected other spending while maintaining fiscal discipline. They'll just cut the rest of domestic spending. But of course the necessary cuts are more than either party is prepared to support or should support except in the abstract; they would do genuine harm. So instead of cutting, they fake it -- use accounting gimmicks, which let them spend the same dollars twice, mislead the public they pretend to serve and curry favor in two directions at once by portraying themselves as generous and frugal, often in the same bill.
The Republicans decided this year to bring up their tax cuts one at a time, to make it harder for the Democrats to resist. It has made it harder for them to resist as well; they have approved more cuts than even they made room for in their mythic budget. Just last week the House Ways and Means Committee conducted another vote, largely on party lines, to phase out the estate tax over 10 years, at an estimated eventual cost of about $50 billion a year. That's atop all the other tax cuts already somewhere in the legislative process, including those that have become the apparent price for a minimum wage increase. Almost all would unduly benefit the better-off. The Republicans themselves can't figure out what to do with them all. It's not clear which if any will even be sent to the president, but that doesn't matter in a mock Congress. It's the show that counts.
On the spending side, Congress generously has provided off the top for such old friends as the aviation industry and farmers. Now come the appropriations bills, which it will pretend to cut, then use accounting games to build back up. The most important open spending question has to do with a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients. Democrats and Republicans are maneuvering either to agree on one or to be in a position to blame the other for not agreeing. It isn't clear yet how that will come out, except that, if adopted, it won't be paid for in the long term. The benefit is needed, but would add to Medicare's financial woes. This is not the Congress, nor the administration, that you should expect to fix those.
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