WASHINGTON – The smell of fresh paint greeted lawmakers reacquainting themselves with their workplace after their seven-week break.
The scaffolding was coming down, revealing a gleaming dome and, underneath it, restored friezes, oil paintings and statues. The Capitol has been returned to its former glory.
If only they could do the same to Congress.
After their seven-week recess, which was the longest break since at least 1960, the people’s representatives in the House are back for just four weeks before recessing again until the election – and there has been talk of cutting those four weeks of work to three or even two.
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They might as well go home, because the House to-do list could end up looking something like this: Impeach the IRS commissioner. Punish the Democrats. Sue the Saudis.
This is how Donald Trump happened.
Americans are worried and angry about the big issues: stagnant wages, immigration, trade deals, health care, entitlement programs, the Zika virus. Yet the best Congress can do for the moment is to keep the government running on autopilot for a few more months, and even this isn’t guaranteed.
With three weeks to go in the fiscal year, Congress has enacted not one of the 12 annual appropriations bills (the House has passed six). While leaders struggle to pass a temporary “continuing resolution,” Republicans fight among themselves about how long it should last and hard-liners threaten to derail it by adding language banning Syrian refugees.
As Republicans sat down for their caucus meeting Wednesday morning, the conversation wandered – this member’s new grandchild, that member’s engagement, various anecdotes and talking points. GOP leaders held a news conference after the meeting, at which they voiced enthusiastic support for … a new soapbox that had appeared over the recess to help shorter members of the caucus be seen behind the lectern.
“You could put three people on that thing,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said upon entering the room and spying the new piece of furniture.
“Gee whiz!” exclaimed Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., trying it out.
With so little happening, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to create the illusion of activity, asserting that in this Congress “a total of 219 bills have been enacted into law. That’s an increase over the 25-year average.”
Actually, the average number of bills enacted into law in previous Congresses going back to 1991 is 435 – double the current output. McCarthy’s spokesman said the claim was based on when Congress went on its long summer holiday. But as of now, McCarthy’s 219 bills are well below the 25-year average of 257 enacted at this point by previous Congresses. And most have been minor “suspension” bills, such as post-office namings.
“People want a positive vision and a clear direction for solving the country’s big problems,” Ryan declared at his news conference.
But instead, they’re getting:
– An attempt to impeach the IRS commissioner. Some hard-liners, still angry about the IRS' treatment of conservative groups, are trying to force leaders to hold a vote to impeach the current commissioner, John Koskinen, who took over after the alleged wrongdoing occurred.
– A bid to punish two dozen House Democrats, led by civil rights icon John Lewis, who staged a sit-in on the House floor in June to protest Republicans’ refusal to bring up gun-control legislation.
– Legislation allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in federal courts, a bill with no chance of getting enough votes.
Instead, House Republicans could spend their fleeting time at work resolving an impasse blocking funds to fight the Zika infection. The Senate reached a bipartisan deal in May to provide $1.1 billion for the effort, but the agreement fell apart when House Republicans added a provision restricting funds from going to Planned Parenthood.
At Wednesday’s news conference, CNN’s Manu Raju asked Ryan why he wouldn’t accept a “clean bill” without the poison pill.
“Look, give me a break,” Ryan said, blaming the Senate.
But even some of Ryan’s Republicans aren’t giving him a break. Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., told Bloomberg’s Billy House that “we become obstructionists” with the Planned Parenthood gambit.
And Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., carried a jar full of Florida mosquitoes onto the House floor. “During the seven weeks … we were gone, cases of Zika rose from 4,000 to by some estimates over 16,000 in the country,” he said. His constituents “are demanding action and they are seeing inaction, and in that inaction they are angry.”
Yes, but have they seen that new soapbox for members of Congress? Gee whiz!
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.