Gail Collins / The polar express to nowhere: Congress adjourns, and it didn't even free the frozen bears

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This is the season of Extreme Politics. Everything's exciting. Mitt Romney paid taxes! Joe Biden bought a 36-pound pumpkin! Paul Ryan is campaigning with his mom! Oh, and Congress just went home to run for re-election.

"I haven't had anybody in West Virginia tell me we should hurry home to campaign," protested Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat. This might be because Mr. Manchin is approximately 40 points ahead in the polls. Nevertheless, he is so fearful of alienating conservatives he refuses to say whom he supports for president. There are only about five undecided voters left in the country and one of them is the senator from West Virginia.

The good news is that our lawmakers spent their last pre-election days in Washington working to pass a bill that would keep the government running for the next six months. This is referred to as a "continuing resolution" and sometimes as "kicking the can down the road." Personally, I am relieved to see this group has the capacity to kick a can.

But let's look at what else they were up to, partly because the last things you take up before going back to the voters shows something about your true priorities.

The Senate had a big finale. Kicking the budget can down the road! Passing a resolution on Iran designed to demonstrate total support for whatever Israel thinks is a good idea! The Sportsmen's Act!

OK, the last one was sort of unexpected. It's a bunch of hunting-and-fishing proposals, ranging from conservation to "allowing states to issue electronic duck stamps." Also, allowing "polar bear trophies to be imported from a sport hunt in Canada."

A long while ago, some Americans legally hunted down said bears, happily envisioning the day when they could display a snarling head on the study wall or perhaps stuff the entire carcass and stick it in the front hallway where it could perpetually rear on its hind legs, frightening away census takers.

But then the United States prohibited the importation of dead polar bears, and there have been 41 bear carcasses stuck in Canadian freezers ever since. Free the frozen polar bears!

Well, not before November, since the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, dug in his heels, claiming the whole hunting bill was only coming up to help sponsor Jon Tester of Montana in a tight race. Mr. McConnell, who publicly set his own top policy priority as making sure Barack Obama didn't get re-elected, hates naked partisanship.

The House, meanwhile, declined to take up two major bipartisan bills from the Senate. One was the farm bill, which Speaker John Boehner admitted he just couldn't get his right wing to vote for despite pleas from endangered rural Republicans. The other was aimed at reviving the teetering U.S. Postal Service. "I hear from our Republican colleagues they didn't want to force their folks to make difficult votes," said Tom Carper, a lead Senate sponsor.

Really, there's no excuse on this one. By the time a difficult issue has been turned into a bipartisan Senate bill, it's no longer all that difficult. People, if you see a member of the House majority campaigning in your neighborhood, demand to know why the Postal Service didn't get fixed. On the plus side, the House did agree that astronauts should be allowed to keep some flight souvenirs.

One thing virtually nobody in the Senate felt was a pre-election priority was spending hours and hours arguing about a proposal from Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to eliminate foreign aid to Libya, Pakistan and Egypt. However, in the grand tradition of the upper chamber, Mr. Paul could hold up the crucial kicking-the-can budget bill hostage by threatening a filibuster if he didn't get his way.

"He can keep us here for a week and a half if we don't let him bring it up," grumbled Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

Mr. Paul does this all the time. Who among us can forget when he stalled the renewal of federal flood insurance under the theory that the Senate first needed to vote on whether life started at conception?

The majority leader, Harry Reid, pointed out repeatedly that he's had to struggle with 382 filibusters during his six years at the helm. "That's 381 more filibusters than Lyndon Johnson faced," he complained. Obviously, Robert Caro is never going to write a series of grand biographies about the life of Harry Reid.

It's a wonder anything ever gets done. Although, actually, it generally doesn't.


Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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