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Do-nothing Democrats

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; A23

Reporters walking into House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's office Tuesday morning noticed an open supply cabinet with a tape measure on the shelf.

It was a strange bit of office equipment. Are Democrats so resigned to defeat that they're expecting Republicans to stop by and take measurements of the majority offices?

They still have their largest majority in decades, but the Democrats have succumbed to paralysis in the closing days of the legislative session. Congress has yet to pass a budget or a single one of the annual spending bills. Plans to spur the economy with tax cuts await action. Senate Democrats, faced with a GOP filibuster, have now punted on immigration reform and repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military. Meanwhile, House Democrats have so little on their schedule that their first vote of the week is coming at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, when Americans are most of the way through their workweeks.

Among the items they'll consider: H.R. 1545, "Expressing support for designation of the week beginning on the third Monday in September as 'National Postdoc Appreciation Week.' " And: H.R. 4387, naming the building at 100 North Palafox St. in Pensacola, Fla., the "Winston E. Arnow Federal Building."

"Your schedule," Linda Scott of PBS remarked to Hoyer at Tuesday morning's meeting, "looks pretty light." She asked whether Democrats are "telling you they need to be back home, rather than naming post offices?"

"We always name post offices," Hoyer replied with irritation. "It's a worthwhile endeavor to do that, and people really do appreciate it, particularly when it's their name and their community."

The Democrats are unable to rally themselves around tax cuts for millions of Americans, and their leader is defending . . . postal namings. In fairness, they're not just talking about post offices: They're also talking about flags. "On the floor we'll have the All-American Flag Act," announced Hoyer.

Over the past 20 months, Democrats have done a lot -- too much, the opposition says. But they don't want to talk about the achievements. The stimulus bill is unpopular; they're not getting credit for health-care legislation, financial reforms and many other accomplishments; and the spent majority can't limp out of town fast enough.

There's still talk about a "lame duck" session after the election, when Democrats might revive some of their proposals. But the end of the current session is turning out to be just plain lame.

Hoyer, who was scheduled to appear at four fundraisers for embattled Democrats on Tuesday alone, was asked if he plans to bring up any other major bills before the election. He cited three minor ones. "You didn't name the tax-cut bill," somebody pointed out.

"I should have," he said, but before acting on that, he added, "we're going to see what the Senate does."

That's easy. The Senate, burial ground for hundreds of House bills this session, is, as usual, doing nothing. On Tuesday afternoon, a pair of Democrats, Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, joined Republicans in blocking debate on a Pentagon policy bill. That essentially killed the Democrats' last major legislative effort of the year (the bill also included immigration provisions and an end to "don't ask, don't tell"). It left the majority with little on its schedule for the rest of the year other than a stopgap bill to keep the government running for a few more months.

After a couple of speeches denouncing the Republican opposition, Democrats moved on.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) delivered a floor speech celebrating the 114th birthday of the world's oldest living man.

Given the circumstances, Hoyer was surprisingly cheerful as he greeted reporters Tuesday morning. "You know things are bad when you're happy to see the press," he said.

The happiness was short-lived, because Hoyer was soon answering questions about the party's "death knell." To defend the Democrats, the majority leader had to employ some inventive math. At one point, he erroneously added up quarterly growth rates, asserting that GDP had seen "almost a 25 percent turnaround from negative to positive." At another point, he made the impossible claim that from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, "you lost 250 percent of the value of your stock portfolio."

It just doesn't add up. "Your members are going to go home with no appropriations bills passed, no budget resolution, record deficits," David Lightman of McClatchy News noted. "How can they go home and say they did good jobs?"

Hoyer said something about a "302(a) allocation" and "statutory PAYGO."

"We have a powerful message to send," Hoyer said, then asked himself: "And what is that message?"

That you named a lot of post offices?

danamilbank@washpost.com

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