Hello and goodbye

Congress is back this week — and will probably be gone at the end of next week. The reason? The election, which isn’t until Nov. 6.

This Congress, with a House run by Republicans and a Senate run by Democrats, has attracted record-low approval ratings. It has been called a do-nothing Congress as both parties blame each other for the paucity of major bills that have made it to President Obama’s desk. More than the lack of specific bills is the pervasive evidence of dysfunction and sense of incapacity.

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There were some lawmakers who called for Congress not to break during August, demanding that colleagues first deal with pending legislation, ranging from the farm bill to the defense sequestration. But in the end it is governing that must wait, while priority is given to electioneering.

Leaders of both parties have their eye on November, as they should. The White House, Senate and the House (to a lesser degree) are up for grabs. It’s perfectly reasonable to wrap up business so that lawmakers can campaign at home this fall.

But that phrase, “wrap up business,” suggests that business will get done. It’s not the same thing merely to pack one’s suitcase and leave town. And does Congress need far more than a month on the trail after only two weeks on the job? Incumbents are reelected at rates above 90 percent and there is no massive wave coming on Nov. 6.

Political leaders note that they cannot now strike deals on sequestration, taxes and the debt ceiling. The election must happen to break the stalemate, they say.

Yet there are already excuses beginning to come from Congress about why the lame-duck session also might be unproductive. Months ago, the lame duck was being billed as the mother of all lame ducks. Now expectations are being lowered. It’s gong from lame duck to merely lame.

Should Mitt Romney win the presidency, major decisions on the expiring tax cuts, defense reductions and other policy items will be put off until the new year. Romney has said he doesn’t want those decisions to be made by a president who is preparing to leave the White House.

Sources now say that even if Obama wins a second term, there is little chance that there will be a huge compromise in November or December. They note that policymakers want to wait until the new Congress before passing such legislation.

Over the last decade, Congress has been effective at kicking the can down the road. The excuses change, but the action, or lack of it, remains the same, whether it’s on Medicare reimbursement for physicians, the estate tax or getting the nation’s debt under control.

The Hill recently reported that despite Congress’s lack of productivity, it had been in session this year for the same number of days as is usual in election years. But the cure for lack of productivity is to be more effective each workday, not to cut the number of workdays to fit the astonishingly low legislative output.