This was supposed to be the year that members of Congress finally started acting like grown-ups.
Instead, while most of the United States has been distracted by the circus of the presidential campaign, Congress has regressed further into childishness, proving itself lazier, more incompetent and more obstructionist then even its fiercest critics could have imagined.
Not so long ago, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) promised that, after years of dysfunction and infighting, 2016 would represent a new beginning.
“We are turning the page,” Ryan said when he accepted the speakership last fall. “We are not going to have a House that looked like it looked the last few years.”
“Regular order” meant that congressional committees would allocate taxpayer money thoughtfully, branch by branch and agency by agency, in 12 separate “regular” appropriations bills. They would all be voted on and signed into law well before the start of the next fiscal year. Congress would not wait until the last minute and cram everything into a giant, sloppy, everything-to-everyone bill in a panicked attempt to avoid a government shutdown — as had become the ritual in recent years.
Ryan is a respected politician and self-identified budget wonk, and getting the nation’s fiscal house in order was supposed to be his top priority.
Instead he — and McConnell, and the rest of Congress — blew it.
The new fiscal year starts this Saturday, Oct. 1, and not a single one of the 12 “regular” appropriations bills has made it to the president’s desk. In fact, this year the House couldn’t even pass a budget resolution setting out the broad outlines for what Congress plans to spend, which is the first step in the budget process; this is only the second year since 1975 that the House was unable to pass such a plan.
With no budget resolution or regular appropriations bills ready to go, Congress is now merely trying to extend current funding levels for a few more months. This would allow legislators to return to the campaign trail and delay the hard decisions until after Election Day.
So far they still haven’t even been able to execute that second-rate plan, though, because legislators have repeatedly tried to tuck poison-pill provisions into this must-pass bill.
The result is that with a little more than a month before the election, Congress is again flirting with a shutdown. And a year into the worldwide Zika epidemic, Congress still hasn’t successfully appropriated a cent toward the crisis, nor has it passed any funding to help families affected by emergencies in Louisiana or Flint, Mich.
Budgets are hardly the only frontier in which the do-nothing legislative branch has proven itself unable to perform even its most basic duties.
It can’t get anyone confirmed, either.
Merrick Garland, President Obama’s Supreme Court pick, famously can’t get a hearing, but he’s hardly the only nominee being snubbed. The Republican-led Senate has confirmed just 22 federal judges this Congress, putting it on pace for the lowest number of confirmed judges since the 1951-1952 Congress, according to the Alliance for Justice. For context, the Senate had confirmed more than three times as many judges by this point in the final Congresses of previous two-term presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. In all these cases, mind you, presidents had also faced Senates controlled by the opposing party.
Empty offices pock the entire executive branch, too, thanks to unprecedented levels of Senate obstruction.
This Congress, the Senate has confirmed the fewest civilian nominees in modern history, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service. As of mid-September, just 248 nominees had been confirmed. That’s, again, half the average number confirmed over comparable periods in the final Congresses of other recent two-term presidents.
Our legislators can’t seem to pass budgets or hold hearings for nominees, yet somehow they find time to go on elaborate political witch hunts, or to hold grandstanding hearings where they publicly shame greedy executives for doing things that the legislators allow to remain legal. They seem to forget that — unlike us poor opinion columnists — they have powers that go beyond mere words, finger-wagging and moral suasion.
That is, they could actually pass laws.