WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers were scrambling to leave town Friday night for a five-week recess with a failure to address the refugee crisis at the southern border, only the latest indignity of a year that may redefine congressional dysfunction.
The 113th Congress this week took another step toward ignominy as one of the least productive, most divided in history. Vocal anti-immigration Republicans were empowered, virtually dictating terms of two House border security bills, even after party leaders had spent much of the year trying to marginalize them. The results were bills with no chance of becoming law, and ones diametrically opposed to the direction that party elders had advised Republicans to go after their losses in 2012.
One measure, which would provide $694 million in emergency funds to address the border crisis, passed Friday night in a 223-189 vote. It would also expedite the deportation of Central American children and bolster the National Guard’s presence at the Mexican border. Another measure would effectively phase out President Barack Obama’s program that offers temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.
“I was a ‘hell no,’ and now I can be for this bill today,” gushed Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. “We completely gutted the bill” the leaders had written.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has virtually shut down the legislative process rather than subject politically vulnerable Democrats to Republican amendments designed to hurt them in November’s elections — and even Democrats are beginning to chafe. This week, after Republicans filibustered an election-year measure to end tax deductions for corporations’ moving expenses overseas,
Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, one of those vulnerable Democrats, said Mr. Reid shared the blame for the measure’s defeat. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., agreed. “There are a lot of us who are frustrated and don’t mind taking tough votes and think we should take more tough votes,” she said.
In the House this week, the rush to accomplish even a relatively modest piece of legislation had a dramatic air, with closed-door meetings and members being summoned back from the airport, as the new Republican leadership team worked to avoid embarrassment. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was swarmed on the House floor Thursday night by angry members of his conference, who demanded that he keep the House in session for as long as it would take for them to vote on a border bill.
Mr. Obama, in a mocking tone during a news conference Friday, said House Republicans made the bill “a little more extreme” so it would pass. He then chided Republicans for voting to sue him for an abuse of his executive authority one day, yet demanding that he assert it the next. “They’re not even trying to solve the problem,” the president said, adding they had offered up “a message bill” in order to “check a box before they’re leaving town tomorrow.”
The Republican bill also engendered harsh criticism from Hispanic members of Congress, who called it cruel to migrant children. That is a sentiment Democrats will try to stoke in the midterm elections, though few Republicans considered vulnerable come from districts with sizable Hispanic populations. The issue could be more potent in the 2016 presidential campaign.
“Unfortunately, the way they speak about our community, it’s almost as though the children — we are a vile, repugnant community to them that they vilify and demonize in every one of their statements,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill.
More broadly, Congress has given no indication that other major issues of the day will be confronted this year, even on matters where members of both parties agree that urgent action is needed. The immigration system is still in crisis. Companies are renouncing their U.S. citizenship over tax breaks. The highway trust fund is running on empty as the nation’s infrastructure crumbles, and entitlement programs are creaking under the weight of an aging population.
Beyond that criticism is a possibly more fundamental problem: the nation’s political representatives have lost the confidence of those who chose them to govern. As the bulk of Americans tune Congress out, the more ardent conservatives have become more emboldened, notably when freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, virtually took control of the House’s immigration bills.
“I think it’s the biggest political issue facing this country,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who often votes with Democrats. “Everybody talks about affordable health care, Syria, Ukraine or the children at the border. The real issue is our institutions aren’t working. That’s one of the reasons we’re unable to deal with these other questions.”
By traditional measurements, the 113th Congress is now in a race to the bottom with the 112th for the “do nothing” crown, with members of both parties frustrated about the lack of action. As of Wednesday, it had passed just 142 laws — 34 of them ceremonial — compared with 151 passed to the same date by the last Congress, which produced fewer laws than any in history. The original “do nothing” Congress of 1947 and 1948 passed 906.
Lawmakers in both parties and in both chambers say they have themselves to blame. The end of earmarking — the practice of channeling money to specific home-district projects — has left many lawmakers helpless to address the most pressing problems of their constituents, some lawmakers say.
Senate Democrats, who continue to blame Republicans for failing to reach any broader immigration deal, were unable to overcome a procedural maneuver to even vote on their own border bill, which would have provided $2.7 billion in funding to address the crisis. House Republicans, who have long argued for stricter border security measures, struggled this week to gather enough votes to pass their own border bill.
The consequences of a Congress stuck in quicksand, fighting itself, are becoming apparent. Curtis Gans, who heads the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, said that if the first 25 primaries of this year hold true, midterm election turnout in November will be the lowest in history. Primary turnout has so far been 14.8 percent. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said, “People are convinced that nothing good is happening in Washington, D.C.”