Congress is gone. Yeah, I miss them, too.
All the members are off on a five-week recess, after which they’ll return for a few days, then go away again, then hobble back as lame ducks. This is going to do terrible things to the congress-ional approval rating, which had climbed all the way up to 17 percent at one point this year. Now it’s sunk to BP oil spill level, and it’s only a matter of time before we’re back to the point where poll respondents say they have a more favorable attitude toward “the U.S. becoming communist.”
You are probably wondering what your elected officials have been up to. Well, the best news is that House and Senate leaders worked out a plan to avoid a government shutdown for six more months by agreeing to just keep doing whatever it is we’re doing now.
This is known as “kicking the can down the road.” Failure to kick the can down the road can lead to “falling off the fiscal cliff.” There are so many of these crises looming that falling off a cliff should be reclassified as an Olympic event.
Just last week, Congress failed to protect the Postal Service from tumbling, and the service defaulted on a $5.5 billion payment for future retiree health benefits. It was the first time that the U.S. mail system failed to meet a financial obligation since Benjamin Franklin invented it.
The Postal Service has multiple financial problems, and, earlier this year, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill to deal with them. It would not have fixed everything, or even resolved the question of whether the strapped agency would be allowed to discontinue Saturday mail delivery as a cost-savings measure. “It’s not perfect,” admitted Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, one of the sponsors.
At this point, the American public has been so beaten down by congressional gridlock that “it’s not perfect” sounds fine. In fact, we’d generally be willing to settle for “it’s pretty terrible, but at least it’s something.”
The Senate plan would have definitely been preferable to the Postal Service default, which could be followed by an all-purpose running-out-of-cash later this fall. Carper was pretty confident that if the House passed a postal bill of any stripe, the two sides could work out a compromise during the long August vacation. That would presumably be a watered-down version of imperfection, which, as I said, is exactly what we’re currently dreaming about.
But the House leadership wouldn’t bring anything up for a vote. Speaker John Boehner never said why. Perhaps he was afraid voters would blame his members for the closing of underused post offices. There is nothing Congress cares more about than post offices, 38 of which the House has passed bills to rename over the past 18 months.
So, no Postal Service bill. You can’t deal with every single thing, and the House had a lot on its to-do list, such as voting to repeal the Obama health care law on 33 separate occasions.
Meanwhile, the national farm program was teetering on the cliff.
The farm bill has long been a classic congressional compromise, combining aid to agriculture with the food stamp program, so there’s pretty much something for everybody. The Senate recently voted 64-35 to approve a new five-year authorization, which reformed some of the most egregious bad practices, like paying farmers not to grow crops. It was, I hardly need mention, not perfect.
Then, the House Agriculture Committee passed a bipartisan farm bill itself. Yes! In the House, people! Everybody was on board!
Then, the House leadership refused to allow it to go up for a vote. Boehner told reporters “no decision has been made” about what to do next, without giving any hint as to when said decision might be coming along.
The problem appears to be tea party hatred for the food stamp program. But who knows? Boehner isn’t saying. Maybe his members want the power to rename the farms.
The House Agriculture Committee chairman, Frank Lucas, just kept making sad little noises. Lucas is from Oklahoma. His state is having a terrible drought. It’s been more than 100 degrees there forever. As a gesture of appeasement, the leadership did allow passage of a narrow bill providing disaster relief to cattle and sheep ranchers. The Senate dismissed it as too little, too late.
Meanwhile, several attempts to get a bill passed on cybersecurity for the nation’s power grid, water supply and financial systems failed entirely.
Maybe Congress will pick up the ball when it comes back to town for a couple of weeks this fall before the election. But it already has a full agenda of futile, symbolic votes plus the crucial kicking the can down the road.
Maybe it’s possible to have a negative approval rating.Gail Collins is a New York Times columnist.