Bills left in limbo are often just part of the choreography in Congress
By Ed O’Keefe and David A. Fahrenthold,
At the top of the legislative agenda in the House this week is the expected approval of a bill to address the problems of those people whose health insurance policies are being canceled in the wake of the Affordable Care Act.
After approval in the House, the bill will go to the Senate, where, if recent patterns hold true, exactly nothing will happen.
Last week when the Senate, with much fanfare, passed historic legislation to ensure federal workplace protections for gay and transgender employees, there was almost no expectation that it would get a hearing in the House.
This is Washington gridlock as pantomime — frenetic gestures and dramatic poses that quickly fade away to nothing.
There are dozens of such bills sitting in congressional limbo, passed by one house of Congress but not the other — and allowing both the House and the Senate to indulge the pleasant illusion that they are being productive.
Some of the bills in this political purgatory are the victims of ordinary congressional gridlock. But others are bound there from their very beginnings — conceived not as legislation that will eventually become law but simply as political instruments intended only to stoke the passions of liberal or conservative base voters.
With the gridlock worse than ever and the 2014 midterm elections less than a year away, that category is expected to grow.
Leaders of the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-led Senate have been accusing the other chamber of ignoring public opinion and impeding the nation’s progress.
“Speaker Boehner, please, please do what is right for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) implored last week after the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
“Nearly every time the Senate passes a bill, it’s like we’re banishing the issue to a faraway jail and Speaker Boehner’s the prison warden,” he said.
But complaints from Senate Democrats about legislation ignored by the House ring hollow on the other side of the Capitol, where Republicans have passed even more bills that have been dismissed by the Senate.
“Senate Democrats need to stop blocking important legislation that helps create jobs and keep more money in the pockets of working Americans,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a statement Friday. “It’s not fair to their constituents to hold up bills that would offer job training, open energy resources, health care fairness and much-needed education reform.”
The Senate strategy
In the Senate, leaders have done slow, painstaking work this year to gather bipartisan support behind a few broad bills. The idea, it appears, has been to present the House with vetted compromises on subjects such as immigration — deals that already have obtained at least some Republican support in the Senate.
That strategy ignores the dynamics of the House Republican Conference, where the split between the most conservative members and the rest of the caucus makes consensus difficult on almost any issue. The result is that the support of Senate Republicans hardly ever translates into GOP approval in the House. So these “bipartisan” Senate bills sit.
Besides ENDA, the Senate has passed at least 26 measures that are stuck in limbo, without approval from the House. The most prominent of those is the sweeping immigration measure that the Senate passed in June with 54 Democrats and 14 Republicans voting “yea.”
In the House, however, that bill’s prospects are unclear. Last month, Boehner said he was hopeful that immigration — the issue, not the specific Senate bill — could be tackled in the House this year. But days later, Boehner’s aides said that serious consideration of immigration legislation will have to wait until the next short-term spending plan is approved in January. Even then, a core of hard-line House conservatives would oppose the kinds of changes approved by the Senate.
The Senate’s farm bill is no longer in limbo, although it is still far from being law. The measure is in a conference committee, with Senate negotiators trying to merge their version of the bill with the House version. But there is little hope that a deal can be reached by the New Year’s Day deadline.
Those three measures — ENDA, immigration and the farm bill — are all ambitious plans, pushed through the Senate after weeks of debate, vote-counting and horse-trading.
The rest of the Senate bills in limbo are not quite as sweeping.
Five of them, for instance, would rename single post offices. Another five have to do with specific parks and rivers, officially designating a piece of land as “wilderness” or a stretch of water as “wild and scenic.”
Several others deal with issues that are fairly narrow in scope. One, for instance, would extend funding for the sanctuary system the United States has established for surplus chimpanzees from federal research facilities. The “CHIMP Act Amendments of 2013” were approved in the Senate on Oct. 30. The House has not taken action.
The House strategy
In the House, Republican leaders have sought to ram through ambitious GOP ideas on a wide variety of subjects, including food stamps, Wall Street oversight and abortion. The strategy, it appears, is to make the Senate pick up these issues and start bargaining on the House’s terms.
The Senate has not taken the bait. Having watched the House GOP damage its own political brand with infighting and brinkmanship, the Senate’s Democratic leaders feel they have the political advantage and see little incentive to go along with the Republicans’ agenda.
In all, there are more than 130 House bills that have not passed the Senate. About 30 of them deal with narrow issues, such as awarding medals or making small changes in the boundaries of national parks and forests. And many of those could be passed by the end of the year.
But others would make substantial changes to the way the government works. One obvious example: By approving H.R. 45, the House voted this year to repeal the health-care law (again).
Another Republican measure in limbo would hamstring the executive branch’s rulemaking process by requiring explicit congressional approval for “major” rules — those with an economic impact of $100 million or more.
Another House-passed bill, written in reaction to reports of wasteful spending at federal agency conferences, would limit what agencies could spend on future conferences. The new ceiling would be $500,000 unless an agency head waives that requirement.
And another, H.R. 850, would insert Congress into one of the most sensitive debates in U.S. foreign policy — how to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The bill, by Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), would require new efforts to limit Iran’s sales of oil to other countries and punish non-U.S. banks that do business with Tehran.
That bill passed the House in July with significant bipartisan support; the vote was 400 to 20, with 178 Democrats joining 222 Republicans in favor. The Senate has not acted, but the issue may be addressed as part of the annual defense authorization bill, one of the few must-pass bills left on the House and Senate calendar.
Near the midpoint of the congressional session, both chambers are keeping pace with gridlock experienced in recent years, according to the Senate Historical Office. During the two-year congressional session that began in 2011, the House passed 296 bills that were ignored by the Senate and the Senate passed 75 ignored by the House. During the 108th Congress, which began in 2003, the House passed 357 bills ignored by the Senate and the Senate passed 278 bills ignored by the House.
At least one bill passed recently in the House is expected to win Senate approval and head to the White House for Obama’s signature. The measure gives the Food and Drug Administration more power to regulate how medicine is shipped across the country. It is in response to a deadly outbreak of fungal meningitis that killed more than 50 people last year.