CONGRESS LEFT town for a month-long vacation last Friday with most of its serious work still undone, and only six working weeks remaining until it is scheduled to go out of existence.
The two houses last year passed an administration savings and loan bailout bill several sizes too small, which they have since regretted, a modest increase in the minimum wage for the first time in nine years and a hugely important, underappreciated bill that will transform the way the nation pays doctors. That was about all. This year they added legislation broadening the civil rights tent to include the disabled. The rest (bills modernizing the Hatch Act and creating a right to unpaid family leave were successfully vetoed) remains to be completed.
Deficit reduction -- what else? -- is the most important piece of unfinished business. Administration and congressional negotiators have now agreed to try to reach the agreement that has eluded them so long by Sept. 10, but nothing is more elastic than a congressional deadline. Depending on the oil markets and events in the Mideast, the talks could be complicated by renewed fear of recession (more than a little ironic, since the urgency before had always been to get the awful business done before the next recession made it so much harder).
If they do reach an agreement, it will still be necessary to pass the implementing legislation. If it's a good agreement, this will include a major tax bill, always a difficult thing to pass; a wringing-out of the government's largest entitlement programs, equally difficult; and a broad overhaul of the current defense program. The House will also have to redo the 10 of the regular 13 appropriations bills it is proud to have passed.
As if that weren't enough, there remain in conference:
The massive clean air bills that the Senate passed in April and the House in May.
Competing child care proposals that the Senate passed more than a year ago and the House in March. The House bill particularly would represent a major increase in federal aid to the poor.
The civil rights bill, which the president both badly wants to sign and has threatened to veto.
Campaign finance legislation that, in the Senate, would also ban honoraria.
New farm and housing bills. A major immigration bill, though not yet in conference, is also a possibility.
Six weeks is not enough to do all this well. Yet most of it ought to be done, and a lame-duck session -- Congress would leave to campaign as scheduled in mid-October and return to complete its work after the election -- is never an attractive idea; it violates the principle of accountability. Most Congresses do the bulk of their work in the final weeks. But this one, with ample help from the administration on the budget, is raising the process to an art.