Back to Recess

By Kellyn Brown

Congress returned from recess last week but no one expected it to get much done. That’s probably best, anyway.

Then, if lawmakers pass any meaningful legislation – say, the five-year Farm Bill extension to provide certainty to an agriculture industry dealing with one of the worst droughts in the country’s history – those lowly expectations would be exceeded. Hooray.

Farmers and ranchers from across the country, including Montana, also arrived at the nation’s capital last week. They held a rally and pressed members of the House of Representatives to vote on the legislation.

The Senate passed a bipartisan Farm Bill in June. But the House has declined to put it to a vote, even as Republicans from agriculture states, including Congressman Denny Rehberg, have continued to call for its passage.

Back in August, Rehberg released a guest column arguing that “Congress must find a way to pass the Farm Bill.” He partially placed blame for the delay on a litany of bad “antirural” legislation proposed by President Barack Obama’s administration, but added, “I’m ready and eager to return to Washington, D.C. at any time to finish this important work.”

Several of his colleagues in the GOP-controlled House have said the same thing. But then they returned. And at the time of this writing the legislation appeared to have little chance of passing and would instead meet the same fate of just about everything else that Congress should be working on: nothing.

You see, as soon as our representatives returned to the U.S. capital after a five-week recess, they were already looking to leave the city. And they were expected to go back home again this week – after just two weeks of work.

Why such a short stint? Well, according to the The Hill, senators in tight races, including Montana Sen. Jon Tester, wanted to get back on the campaign trail as soon as possible. And Republicans were just as eager to leave the capital.

The Farm Bill is one of several major pieces of legislation waiting for congressional action. There’s also the budget, postal reform and the so-called “fiscal cliff” the country is facing at the end of the year.

Last year, in the ugly debate to raise the debt ceiling, Democrats and Republicans agreed to a plan that called for $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts, with half coming from defense and security spending, if the two sides cannot agree on a long-term plan to reduce the deficit. The deal also called for automatic tax increases that economists predict, if triggered, could plunge the country into another recession. You would think this would provide the urgency needed to hammer out a debt plan. That would be wishful thinking.

No one expects a deal to be reached before the election and few expect one before the end of the year regardless of the election’s outcome. It’s likely Congress will simply extend the status quo for six months beginning in 2013.

Instead, lawmakers spent their short stint in town conducting show votes on pieces of legislation that had little chance of passing but could be used in advertisements for candidates in close races as Nov. 6 approaches.

If Congress leaves for home this week, as expected, “lawmakers this year will have been in session fewer than 10 days in the three months before the election,” according to Bloomberg Businessweek. “It would be the earliest pre-election adjournment since 1960.”

Except it’s safe to say that today far more massive pieces of legislation still hang in the balance. At least the House and Senate will remove the threat of a government shutdown by passing a six-month spending bill. That, anymore, is about all we can expect from Congress.