Congress Adjourns: ‘Let’s Do Our Job’ Doesn’t Happen Yet

It’s easy, actually very easy, to credit party politics for government dysfunction these days. So while Congress headed out of Washington this week (12:20 a.m. Thursday for the House) without dealing with the soon-to-expire Bush-era tax cuts, there was at least a little joy in some comments that accompanied the action.

In other words, some Democrats were downright upset that they didn’t stay and do their job (their words). In fact, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had to cast a tiebreaking vote to allow for adjournment after 39 members of her caucus wanted to vote on tax cut extensions.

Maybe there is some hope for the post-election session. Here are the words of a few Democrat representatives:

  • Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia:  “I think we should stay and deal with taxes. We should extend the tax cuts now. Before we adjourn. I get paid to be here. Let’s do our job.”
  • Rep. Bobby Bright, Alabama: “I’m not ready to adjourn if there’s any work they expect us to do. We’ve got a lot of work to do, a lot of unfinished business, and I’m ready to take it on. That’s my position. The vast majority of people in my district are saying ‘Don’t raise taxes when the economy is in such a bad state, on anybody.’ ”
  • Rep. Zack Space, Ohio: “That’s an issue we should be resolving before we go home. I think that small business, big business, individuals, have a right to expect some certainty. The longer we keep this open, the more uncertainty there is. Our economy is such that I don’t think we can afford that.”

For good measure, here are some sound thoughts from Democrat Senator Ben Nelson:

"In my view, raising anyone’s taxes, given our fragile economy would be a move in the wrong direction. Nebraskans I represent tell me they feel a lot of uncertainty about the future. Nebraska business owners do to. The possibility of tax increases is just one more reason that companies at home and across the country are holding on to cash and are hesitant to invest in new equipment, new production and new employees."

 Hopefully, such comments will lead to positive actions before it is too late.

How Much Will the Punch Line to This Joke Hurt?

The old joke, although some are not laughing too loudly, if at all, these days, is that democracy is safe when our elected reps and senators are away from Washington.

No joke because many actions in the capital have been, to put it mildly, counterproductive to employers and employees having the ability to succeed. No joke because there are so many issues that need to be addressed in a positive fashion.

The Chamber warned through several venues last week that lawmakers, just back from their extended August recess, were ready to hit the campaign trail once again. That seems to be the case, with this report from CQ Politics

Congressional leaders had a lengthy set of priorities for September, including a defense authorization bill, an immigration measure, food safety legislation, expiring tax policy extensions and fiscal 2011 appropriations. Rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans in both chambers angled for action on additional bills dealing with energy issues, stem cell research and proposals to boost the stagnant economy.

And House Democratic leaders said they were ready to take up anything the Senate passed.

But by the end of last week, Democratic leaders had punted all those issues until after the Nov. 2 elections, setting the stage for a possible pre-election recess as early as Oct. 1. The only items left on the to-do list were a small-business tax and lending package and a stopgap appropriations measure — known as a continuing resolution, or CR — to keep the government running until lawmakers return in mid-November.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., said that completion of the $725.7 billion fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill would have to wait until after the elections. Republicans had signaled they would block the bill from even coming to the floor because they have not been allowed votes on their priorities.

Reid additionally put off action on the food safety measure until the November lame-duck session. “We are very limited in the time we have before the election,” he said.

Democrats have said they only hope to “debate” before the elections an extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that expire at the end of the year.

With the Senate gridlocked, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has based her chamber’s agenda on what the other body can pass.

Vote Update Comes With Lofty Price Tag

The August recess in Congress seems like a good time to replace the voting display board that dates back more than 30 years.

A statement from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office explained: "The implementation of the new main displays will provide the House of Representatives with a more dependable voting display that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, as it will ensure increased clarity and readability."

No mention of the cost there, although some digging back into testimony to House appropriators a year earlier reveals a $6 million price tag House Clerk Lorraine Miller said at that time that with the old board lawmakers’ names still needed to be physically rearranged whenever there was a change in membership, which she called a time-consuming process.

I’m all for saving time for clerks and making it easier to read votes (although if you know a representative’s party these days you can pretty much guess which way he or she is voting), but $6 million to get the job done? Wow!

Following the Bouncing Ball in D.C.

The urgency to pass health care reform legislation is officially gone. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she "did not want to hurry a decision" and Sen. Christopher Dodd suggests Democrats "take a month to think about a path forward." This from the same people who imposed deadline after deadline throughout the past year. Credit a clear message from the voters in Massachusetts and rapidly declining poll numbers for the change in course.

The House, in fact, appears unsure where to turn next — at least as far as official business is concerned. The schedule for this week: day off today, legislative business starting at 2 p.m. Tuesday, an early end Wednesday in preparation for that night’s State of the Union speech, and no votes on Thursday or Friday. Expect to hear, from the White House and leaders in Congress, more about jobs, jobs and jobs.

But remember. Just about everything talked about, debated and eventually voted upon in 2010 will be done so with an eye toward the November election. To me, that’s a shame but a reality that no one seems willing to confront.

Stop the Insurance Industry Attacks

While many agree that health care reform is necessary, the level of disagreement on the current proposals in Washington is extremely high. Let’s hope that reasonable debate and compromise will lead to a sensible solution.

No matter how that plays out, one aspect that needs to stop is the all-out attack on the insurance industry. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has made insurance companies the primary culprit. "It’s almost immoral what they are doing," Pelosi told reporters, adding, "Of course they’ve been immoral all along in how they have treated the people that they insure. They are the villians. They have been part of the problem in a major way."

President Obama, in discussing the public option for health insurance, said, "We want to keep the insurance industry honest" and that can be done by having a public option that will compete with private insurers.

I understand that many folks don’t like the fact that insurance companies make a profit. Profit in this country, for some unknown reason, has become an evil pursuit. In a recent Fortune magazine ranking of industries, health insurers ranked 35th with a 2.2% profit margin. (The larger numbers cited for earlier in the decade were primarily a result of significant consolidation in the industry).

Let’s face it: Either the employee-based system of using private insurance to provide for our health care needs is a good thing or it’s not. If it’s not, then go to the public plan and be honest with the American people. If it is good, let’s promote an environment that allows insurers the ability to compete and make a profit while holding them accountable to improve administrative efficiencies.

Without the ability to underwrite business, an insurance company can’t make a profit. That ability is what has afforded us the best policy benefits and coverages in the world. It also has resulted in private initiatives between insurers and employers to address some of the system’s runaway costs. Let’s work together to continue to do a better job in that area instead of simply casting blame on insurers.

A Closer Look at the Climate Change Vote

Late last week, the U.S. House voted 219-212 to pass climate change legislation. It is one of what will be a long series of contentious debates and votes during the current session. Although Democrats have a strong majority in the House, this was not a party-line vote. A few of the facts:

  • Forty-four Democrats voted against the measure, with 211 voting for it. Thus, it took some of the eight Republican "yes" votes for the bill to pass
  • Those numbers may be slightly misleading, however, as some of the Dems switched their votes when the total reached 220. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says some of those 44 would have been with her party’s majority to ensure the bill’s passage
  • This topic has often been referred to as geographical rather than political. According to analysis from the National Journal, 30 of the 121 Democrats from states that generate at least 40% of their power from coal (think Indiana and its 95% coal use) voted against the bill. Only 14 of the 134 Democrats from states that are less reliant on coal joined in the opposition
  • On the political side, Sen. John McCain carried 49 districts last year in which Democrats were elected to the House. Twenty-nine of those reps voted against the measure. In the 207 districts that voted for both Democratic reps and President Obama, only 15 voted against the bill

Political dynamics will continue to be at play — they always are. But each issue, each vote, will prove interesting with different legislators and regions coming to the forefront. Stay tuned for plenty more to come.