In this summer of political gloom, the drumbeat from the American heartland to Washington has been relentless: Fix the economy. Fix the immigration system. Talk to each other.
It’s one reason why political insurgents Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders have become the raging bulls of the 2016 presidential race and the political stories of the summer.
But it’s business as usual on Capitol Hill, where too-common political Band-Aids and fiery appeals to narrow constituencies trump thoughtful debate and long-term solutions.
Congress did pass a piece of legislation Thursday, to fund transportation and infrastructure. Few would dispute it’s been a festering sore urgently in need of congressional attention.
But instead of the multiyear program that states have been pleading for year after year – and that many lawmakers agree is long overdue – lawmakers could muster support only for a three-month stopgap solution.
This past week the Senate leaped on plans to debate cutting money to Planned Parenthood, a target of controversy over the sale of fetal tissue. In the House of Representatives, some Republicans talk about yet another vote – there’s already been more than 50 – to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But nothing will happen anytime soon. House members left town on vacation and won’t return until September. Senators are counting the hours until they leave sometime in the coming week. Both chambers are leaving behind a long list of fiscal issues whose importance will only grow as deadlines for decisions shorten.
All this is certainly one reason why lots of voters are rebelling and why Trump, a developer and reality TV star running as a Republican, and Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont running as a Democrat, have drawn the biggest crowds as they try to mobilize voter anger.
Sanders has surprisingly emerged as the chief Democratic alternative to front-runner Hillary Clinton. Two new polls last week gave Trump a comfortable lead over Republican rivals in New Hampshire and had him a strong second in Iowa.
They have very different approaches. Trump rails against the political system. Sanders wants to build grass-roots support.
It’s early, and whether they have political staying power remains to be seen. But they have channeled Washington’s inability to address the public’s discontent, which has long been evident in polls. A Gallup survey in May found that only 19 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing.
Lawmakers offer voters a variety of reasons for the inertia. A few of Republicans blame their own leadership for not being bold enough.
“They’re not listening to the American people,” said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.
This past week, Jones’ North Carolina colleague, Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, launched a bid to oust House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. It went nowhere.
A messy process
Others noted that the time to judge any legislature is when it’s done. Lawmaking is a messy process, they say, and by fall, they expect more action.
So why not forgo the August recess and get it done?
“This is a process where the difficult things don’t get done until they reach a boiling point,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
Try explaining that back in places like Baltimore’s riot corridors.
“Sanders is speaking to the pain people are feeling,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who represents the area torn by rioting this spring.
Trump has also tapped into that frustration, Cummings said, though it’s over the fear and anxiety people feel about immigration.
Republicans control both chambers of Congress, so they bear the responsibility for what it does – or does not – get done. But they defend their record. So far this year, Congress has given President Obama broad authority to negotiate trade agreements and has passed a long-sought, long-term term fix for Medicare physician payments.
“We’ve accomplished an awful lot this year, but … we’ve got a lot more to do,” Boehner said.
Maybe so, but clearly the public has a different impression.
“It may be that the hit to Congress’ reputation over the last several years, evident not only in dismal job approval ratings but also falling levels of trust and confidence, will take a long time to reverse,” said Jeffrey Jones, a Gallup poll analyst.
Still, both parties can’t resist seizing the so-called “wedge” issues – politically divisive topics aimed at rallying narrow constituencies.
When Democrats controlled the Senate last year they were relentless in championing equal pay for women. But they were unable to agree with the Republican-run House on a comprehensive federal budget plan.
This year, Republicans are pushing issues that their conservative base appreciates, if not demands. Yet they’re stalled, and in some cases engaged in a civil war, on some policies.
Meanwhile, none of the spending bills that fund the government after Oct. 1 has become law. A new round of automatic spending cuts looms unless changes are approved, and the debate over the debt ceiling is about to resume. All this as the political pull of the 2016 elections draws closer.
Yet for all Congress still has to do, when an anti-abortion group recently released undercover videos of Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of fetal tissue, Senate Republicans couldn’t resist jumping on it. Planned Parenthood said the edited videos showed conversations taken out of context.
Republicans saw a political opening to fire up their conservative base and quickly lined up to divert money from the group to women’s health organizations that do not provide abortions. Among those leading the charge was Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, one of the party’s presidential candidates.
Other candidates weighed in. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, began circulating a petition to demand “Congress defund and prosecute Planned Parenthood.”
Democrats, who in recent elections often attract more women’s votes than do Republicans, also saw opportunity.
“I hope they understand that it is still, no matter how you package it, it’s an attack on women,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “Indirectly, it’s an attack on my daughter, my wife, my granddaughters directly.”
As for the desire among some House Republicans to re-engage the health care debate, there are those who acknowledge that it could be tough to explain back home.
“I don’t think this is the way to go,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., of another likely attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. “You know it’s going to be vetoed by a president who’s not on the ballot this year.”
Congress has always been a mix of policy and politics. But for all the obvious dissatisfaction out there, it’s unlikely to change.
When lawmakers return in September, the Senate plans to work 15 days over the course of the month.
The House will work seven days upon its return from the August break. Then it is scheduled to take another week off before returning to the Capitol for three more days at the end of the month.