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With Payroll Tax Cut Done, Is It Do-Nothing Congress Time? It Depends

Expect the rest of 2012 to bring more political symbolism like Thursday's House hearing on birth control and religious freedom than actual passage of major legislation that solves Americans' problems.
Carolyn Kaster
Expect the rest of 2012 to bring more political symbolism like Thursday's House hearing on birth control and religious freedom than actual passage of major legislation that solves Americans' problems.

Now that Congress has passed the extension of the payroll tax cut and jobless insurance benefits for the long-term uninsured, as well as a fix that prevents cuts in Medicare reimbursements to doctors, there's the sense that not much else will get done on Capitol Hill, it being a general-election year and all.

And that sense, captured in a recent Politico article, may be true in so far as major legislation goes. In Washington's superpolarized political atmosphere, it's hard enough to get such bills passed in a year when the White House isn't up for grabs, let alone a year like 2012 when it is.

But whether a Congress can be defined as do-something or do-nothing is really in the eye of the beholder.

If you judge Congress by its ability to pass landmark legislation or bills that address the real needs of the U.S. population, then you likely won't be giving Congress over the next year high marks for accomplishing much.

But if you judge Congress by the standard of whether lawmakers make numerous symbolic statements with their legislative maneuvering, then you're likely to view the coming months as very productive indeed.

James Thurber, an American University professor and director of the school's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, is in the first camp, defining an effective Congress as one that produces "outcomes that solve problems."

By that standard, he doesn't have high hopes for the rest of the year. "There'll be a lot of wedge issues and agony and angst," said Thurber. "There'll be lots of oversight that will go a long way to try and point out what the parties believe in, instead of legislation that's likely to pass."

For instance, you'll probably see quite a few more sessions like Thursday's humdinger of a hearing by the House Oversight and Investigations Committee focusing on the question of whether the Obama administration's new birth-control rule threatens religious freedom.

Not surprisingly, Republicans stacked the deck, as is the majority's prerogative, with witnesses who agreed that the regulation is such a threat, while some Democrats walked out of the hearing because the first panel had no women on it.

Even with it being an election year, it would seem that Congress has some "musts" on its to-do list. For instance, deep cuts in the defense budget are scheduled to start taking effect in 2013 and beyond if Congress does nothing to head them off.

Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute, an expert on Congress, isn't so sure that even that sword of Damocles is enough to get Republicans and Democrats to agree on averting cuts.

"There's not much incentive of Democrats to negotiate if there's no broader deal that includes revenue (or new tax increases). And given how on the Republican side, the politics are driven by the presidential race, any deal that included higher revenues would be greeted with blowback from the Republican base."

Also, Ornstein added, the just approved payroll tax cut agreement is a fly in the ointment going forward for GOP leaders.

Many rank-and-file House Republicans and some in the Senate were unhappy with it because they didn't want to extend the cut in the first place and certainly didn't want to do so without offsetting it with spending cuts.

"Overall, the deal was seen as caving," Ornstein said, which means when it comes to future negotiations that might include some form of higher taxes, Republican leaders aren't "going to have the troops behind them."

So it could very well shape up to be a do-nothing Congress in terms of legislative achievement from here on out, though as Ornstein reminds us, circumstances often have a way of making Congress act.

"The world may force Congress to do something because of economic circumstances or foreign policy," he said.

If Congress essentially runs the clock out the rest of the year, that wouldn't necessarily make everyone unhappy. Hundreds of Washington lobbyists spend their working hours trying to make sure that the federal policies that benefit their clients stay exactly the way they are.

"The big winner on the Hill is the status quo," Thurber said. "It's great to lobby for the status quo because you usually win and you get paid a lot of money for it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James
Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.