Barely halfway into the 113th Congress, some pundits are already writing the legislative body's obituary. The Hill declared, "Congress has in some ways already closed for business until after the midterm election. Any laws made between now and November will be minor." CNBC's Ben White similarly announced: "It may be only March but the legislative year in D.C. is basically over." In this view, immigration reform, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and even under-the-radar issues like transportation funding are all seen as D.O.A.
This pessimism is understandable. Our two major parties are more ideologically distant than perhaps at any point in U.S. history. The few bipartisan deals that have been struck have come through gritted teeth and often forced by artificial deadlines. And we're in a midterm election year when the parties have increased incentive to attack rather than cooperate.
White's argument rests on that basis: "Democrats want the election to be about mean-spirited Republicans who don't want to raise the minimum wage, extend jobless benefits, or celebrate the fact that lower-income people now have better access to affordable health care. Republicans want the election to be about what they view as a disastrous health-care law that Americans don't like and an economy that is barely treading water."
True enough. But sometimes one party stands down to take away a threatening line of attack from the other side.
Republicans caved on minimum wage in 1996, which helped them keep Congress despite President Bill Clinton's easy re-election. Democrats caved on funding a border fence in the fall of 2006, which helped keep the spotlight on an increasingly unpopular Iraq war, and propelled their takeover of Congress a few weeks later. With Democrats today maintaining pressure on raising the minimum wage and extending jobless aid, Republicans may make a similar calculation before the year is out.
The Hill sees little hope for a big transportation bill, noting, "The Highway Trust Fund could run out of money by August and [Speaker John] Boehner recently admitted he has no solution."
The key part of that sentence is "run out of money by August." Do you think any incumbent congressman is going to whistle the day away while all the federal highway money dries up, contractors walk, and road and bridge projects halt, right before Election Day?
Yes, the parties have a big conundrum to solve — the trust fund is financed by a gas tax that hasn't kept up with inflation, and there's no way this Congress is going to raise a gas tax. But they have plenty of time and all the incentive in the world to solve it.
The white whale of this legislative session is immigration reform. The Hill has been writing its obituary for some time, publishing the two-part series "How Immigration Died" back in November — only to see Boehner breathe new life into it by drafting a set of immigration principles, then seemingly shelve them by suggesting nothing could pass until President Obama proved his trustworthiness in some unspecified way.
This week The Hill reports, "GOP sources say Boehner remains committed to immigration reform but is reluctant to provoke a Tea Party rebellion in an election year."
Give that a close read. How is that proof that Boehner has given up? Passage may not be likely, but if he really is committed to reform, then he's still trying to find a way to pass it without sparking a debilitating party split.
And a sweet spot for major legislative activity still remains: around June and July.
That's the window when Republican incumbents will have finished with any Tea Party primary challenges, and before the general election campaign is in high gear. Boehner's more recent negative feints may simply be a way to dampen the Tea Party revolt until the primary season has passed.
No one can say at this point what Boehner will do once the primaries end — if anyone in Washington knows how to keep his cards close to his vest, it is the speaker.
Those committed to tackling these tough issues should not let pessimistic prognosticators create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Congress ain't over 'til it's over.