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April 20, 2014

Posts in "Hill Dysfunction"

March 9, 2014

Issa’s Antics Again Try GOP’s Patience, Complicate Party’s Message

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(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

If Congress can sometimes be fairly compared to the fabled Faber College of “Animal House,” then Darrell Issa is the latest character to get marked for “double secret probation.”

The chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee did what he had to do to minimize the immediate political damage he inflicted on his House GOP colleagues last week. He swallowed his considerable pride and reversed his defiant rhetorical course to apologize to Maryland’s Elijah E. Cummings for peremptorily cutting off the microphone the panel’s senior Democrat was just starting to use, drawing a finger across his throat and turning his back and walking out of their March 5 hearing.

And the Californian made his de minimus mea culpa within 36 hours, so memories of the ugly incident might fade a bit before Congress returns for the new week.

But the disdain stirred up in the Democrats, the annoyance revealed by many Republicans and the dismay expressed by institutionalists in both parties won’t disappear. Footage of the incident quickly went viral, and surely will be revived for the foreseeable future to illustrate stories about heightened partisan tensions, lowered standards of decorum or intensified investigative zealotry at the Capitol.

That is why Issa has assured lasting trouble for himself, especially in his own ranks. For the final nine months of his term-limited time with the Oversight gavel, expect him to be under a very tight leadership leash. Full story

January 28, 2014

A Minimum Wage Move With Maximum Confrontational Consequences

Among the stranger phenomena of the modern State of the Union tradition is how White Houses of both parties work so hard to drain it of almost all news value before the speech actually gets delivered.

The demands of the continuous news cycle, which affords the president so many opportunities to spoon out dollops of his agenda, now easily outweigh the traditional virtue of surprise — and the old-time verity that there’s no use annoying your hosts, your opponents or your potential partners before you absolutely have to.

The trend seemed locked in place Tuesday morning, 13 hours before the national television audience was asked to start paying attention. That was when the administration revealed what was guaranteed to be among the biggest, if not the biggest, headlines out of the address: President Barack Obama is going to give many thousands of blue-collar workers a raise — on his own authority.

In other words, not only was Obama making good on his promise to make this his most assertive year yet for maneuvering around the gridlock at the Capitol, but he was getting started even before going through the formalities of seeking congressional buy-in. (Of course, he made a major push for a $9 minimum wage in his State of the Union address a year ago, and that went nowhere.) Full story

January 27, 2014

Seat Scramble for Big Speech Loses Its Crossover Appeal

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In 2011, Republicans and Democrats arranged to sit side by side at the State of the Union as a gesture of bipartisan goodwill. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Seems like “date night” just isn’t a thing anymore.

Three years ago, many dozens of Republicans and Democrats arranged to sit side by side at the State of the Union. The break with decades of tradition was orchestrated in hopes of persuading the country that civil discourse and bipartisan collegiality had gained renewed value in Congress after the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

The roster of cross-aisle seating arrangements remained plenty big the next year, but there was a noticeable falloff in 2013. And, unless the situation changes in the last hours before President Barack Obama arrives at the Capitol on Tuesday, spotting crossover seatmates in the House chamber looks to be a genuinely difficult task this year.

The putative tradition, like the annual House “civility retreats” more than a decade ago, looks to be fading toward oblivion. The soft ending nonetheless underscores how the bilious nature of today’s congressional culture can slowly poison even the most benignly symbolic and fleetingly telegenic gestures toward cultivating common ground.

A survey of two dozen senators, all of whom connected with senators of the other party in 2012, found only four couples volunteering plans for keeping the custom alive on Tuesday night.

Full story

January 6, 2014

6 Sleepers Lurking on the Hill’s To-Do List

The first Senate vote of the new year — Monday evening’s confirmation of Janet L. Yellen as the first Federal Reserve chairwoman in its hundred-year history — kicked off the second session of the 113th Congress with a genuinely meaningful bang.

And, as outlined in this space, there’s a solid chance lawmakers will achieve three of the year’s marquee goals before the coldest weeks of winter are over.

A $1 trillion spending package that begins repairing the broken appropriations process seems on course for completion next week. A deal that finds the bipartisan sweet spot for reductions in both food stamps and crop subsidies may follow in a matter of days. And prospects are brightening daily for a relatively drama-free increase in the Treasury’s borrowing authority — lasting until after the election — soon after the Winter Olympics are over.

But then what? Much of the talk at the moment is about revived Republican interest in changing immigration law. But it will be summer, after the bulk of tea party challenges to House GOP incumbents have played out, before leadership decides whether it’s politically safe pull the trigger on an agreement that would easily rank as 2014’s biggest.

After that, there’s a substantial drop in headline appeal. But there are a range of policy areas where Republicans and Democrats might plausibly strike narrow, and narrowly consequential, agreements before the midterm elections. These are half a dozen to watch: Full story

December 23, 2013

The 7 Most Important Things Congress Did in 2013 (and the Top 25 Things It Didn’t)

Every lawmaker and staffer at home for the holidays is surely spending much of the break answering some version of this same derisive question: What’s it like, being a part of the least productive Congress in modern times? Two numbers frame the discomforting answer: 7 and 25.

The figures represent one rudimentary, but nonetheless accurate, way to measure the “score” for congressional accomplishment in 2013. Seven undeniably consequential things actually got completed at the Capitol during the year. But another 25 relatively big legislative goals — some set by only one party, but plenty claimed by both sides — were left at various points along the wayside.

It’s an even more lopsided outcome than was widely expected until just before the final flurry of activity for the year, just before the Senate adjourned on Dec. 20. (The House went home one week earlier.) In one final example of the sort of what’s-the-use paralysis that gripped the Capitol for so much of the year, Democrats gave up on their plans to secure all the confirmations they’d planned for and had the votes to achieve — because they were unwilling to wait around on the weekend before Christmas until the Republicans had exhausted all their allotted time for claiming they’d been railroaded.

The narrative’s been set for months: Record gridlock will be the “historic” hallmark affixed to the first session of the 113th Congress. Yes, there are the easy caveats: there are always limits to making laws in a divided government. Some of the most important issues of our time are too complex to solve quickly. Writing legislation is not necessarily the best way to address a national problem. And not all bills are created equal; renaming a post office is, of course, not as credit-worthy as mandating peace in our time.

Still, the final bill President Barack Obama signed before beginning his two-week vacation in Hawaii, a 10-year extension of the ban on plastic firearms, was only the 57th public law added to the books this year. And only another 17 more are being readied for the president’s signature — a couple of top-tier bills finished in the final days, the defense authorization measure and the budget deal, along with a passel of obscure tweaks to existing law. (One, for example, would smooth a benefits wrinkle for disabled veterans training for the Paralympic Games.)

Assuming Obama signs every bill he gets, which seems like a safe bet, that would mean 74 new statutes enacted in 2013 — a record for the smallest legislative output since before World War II, when the modern record-keeping regime was instituted.

The current mark is 90, from 2011, the opening year for the current configuration of divided government

As for the best apples-to-apples comparisons — to years when presidents were starting their second terms dealing with a divided Congress — the 2013 number will look even more meager. Bill Clinton signed 153 laws in 1997, Ronald Reagan wielded his pen 240 times in 1985, and Richard M. Nixon affixed his signature to 247 measures in 1973.

For all those who will be spending the next couple of weeks defending their role in the dysfunction — to their constituents or their in-laws — here’s a clip-and-save list of reminders for boasting about or deriding what did and did not get done in 2013.

The 7 Most Important Things Congress Did:

  • Erase $45 billion in across-the-board cuts to domestic and military programs that were set to take effect in January, plus another $19 billion due a year later. (About $140 billion of the sequester that had been dictated in 2011 for both this fiscal year and the next one was left intact.) The additional discretionary spending is to be more than offset by projected savings and non-tax revenue increases worth $85 billion in the next decade, allowing the difference to be counted toward deficit reduction.
  • Eliminate the filibuster as a tool for blocking almost all nominees. The Senate changed its rules to lower the threshold for invoking cloture, or limiting debate, on executive and judicial nominations except to the Supreme Court — from three-fifths of all senators to a simple majority of those present. It’s the biggest limitation on the powers of the minority party, and the most fundamental alteration to the way the Senate functions, since 1975.
  • Shift the ideological balance on the nation’s second-most influential federal bench, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Senate confirmed three of President Barack Obama’s choices for longstanding vacancies. When the year began, four active judges on the court were nominees of Republican presidents and three had been picked by Democrats.
  • Revamp the system for setting interest rates on federal college and graduate school loans. Before the start of every school year, the rate will be tied to the government’s own cost of borrowing, but also subject to new caps. The compromise did away with a fixed interest rate that Congress had been under pressure to reduce indefinitely.
  • Expand the reach of the Violence Against Women Act, which directs federal efforts to combat and prosecute domestic abuse. Gay and lesbian victims may now benefit from the law’s legal assistance, transitional housing, law enforcement training and hotline programs, and the rules were eased for using tribal courts to prosecute non-Native Americans accused of sex crimes on reservations.
  • Provide $50.5 billion to help local governments and individuals with Superstorm Sandy recovery and reconstruction. After one of the most damaging storms ever in the nation’s largest metropolitan area, the emergency aid was delayed 13 weeks because of disputes over whether the package was too generous or should be matched with offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.
  • Enact a defense authorization bill for a 53rd consecutive year, a record of consistency unmatched by any other measure that’s supposed to be updated annually. The bill’s most notable feature is a package of provisions designed to stanch an epidemic of sexual assault in the armed forces.

The 25 Most Important Things Congress Talked About, but Did Not Do:

  • Appropriate money for any programs or agencies by the start of the new budget year, leading to a suspension of non-essential federal services for the first 16 days of October. It was the first such partial government shutdown since early 1996.
  • Repeal or make any substantive changes to the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 law also known as Obamacare that overhauled the nation’s medical insurance system.
  • Expand the national background check system for prospective gun buyers, restrict the size of ammunition magazines or otherwise tighten federal gun control laws in response to a series of high-profile mass shootings.
  • Change immigration law, either by expanding border security or by creating a path to legal residency or citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the United States without documentation.
  • Confirm Janet L. Yellen as the first Democrat since 1987 to head the Federal Reserve, the government’s single-most influential economic policymaking position. The Fed vice chairwoman since 2009, she would be the first woman and only the 15th person to wield the gavel in the central bank’s hundred-year history.
  • Limit benefits provided by Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, the biggest federal entitlement programs. Their projected annual growth rates pose the most substantial challenge to controlling annual federal deficits and the accumulated debt in the next two decades.
  • Extend a collection of routine and relatively non-controversial tax provisions — or begin an overhaul of the federal tax code to reduce the number of exemptions, exclusions and expenditures while expanding the ranks of people and businesses required to pay some taxes.
  • Advance any proposals for combating climate change by reducing the nation’s carbon footprint, even as the scientific consensus solidified that human activity has been responsible for most of the global warming in recent decades.
  • Revise conditions for providing aid to public elementary and secondary schools. The No Child Left Behind law, seen by both parties as in need of a rewrite, has been due for an update since 2007.
  • Reduce crop subsidies for farmers and food stamp benefits for poor people as part of a rewrite of the multi-year farm bill, which lapsed in 2012.
  • Limit the roles of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the national housing market, either by ending or curtailing the government’s role as a guarantor of mortgages.
  • Tighten rules for the National Security Agency’s collection of civilians’ telephone calling or other electronic communication records, in response to the furor over the breadth of NSA spying programs.
  • Proscribe any alterations to foreign policy, despite intense debate over intensifying sanctions on Iran and launching a military strike on Syria to punish its use of chemical weapons.
  • Prohibit businesses with more than 15 employees from discrimination in hiring and employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Overhaul and curtail the operations of the Postal Service so it can become financially viable in the era of declining mail volume.
  • Raise the federally guaranteed minimum wage above $7.25 an hour, where it has been fixed since July 2009.
  • Allow states to require that online retailers outside their borders collect sales taxes on goods purchased by their residents.
  • Streamline the 35 sometimes duplicative programs providing employment and job training aid to the states.
  • Replace the formula for limiting Medicare payments to physicians, which has been routinely ignored since its 1997 creation with a series of annual “doc fix” bills.
  • Update the Voting Rights Act in reaction to a Supreme Court decision overturning a central component while inviting a congressional rewrite.
  • Outlaw almost all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, the new top legislative cause of the National Right to Life Committee.
  • Expedite regulatory and environmental reviews of federal water projects and revamp the funding system for dredging and harbor maintenance.
  • Speed construction across the Great Plains of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, a focal point in the national debate about balancing economic development and environmental stewardship.
  • Continue a policy, started during the height of the 2008 recession, of extending jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed for 28 weeks beyond the usual expiration after six months.
  • Ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The treaty, negotiated during the George W. Bush administration and ratified by 138 other nations, is designed to extend globally a system of accommodations for the disabled enshrined in federal law since 1990.

December 16, 2013

Lackluster Final Score for Congress This Year: 8 to 22

Every lawmaker and staffer who’s about to head home for the holidays knows to expect to spend the break answering some version of the same dreaded and derisive question: What’s it like, being a part of the least productive Congress in modern times?

Here are two simple numbers for prolonging the uncomfortable conversation: 8 and 22.

Assuming the Senate does everything it’s expected to do this week, eight undeniably consequential things actually will have been completed at the Capitol this year. But another 22 relatively big legislative goals — some set by one party, but plenty claimed by both sides — will have been left at various points along the wayside.

The narrative’s been set for months: Record gridlock will be the “historic” hallmark affixed to the first session of the 113th Congress. Yes, there are the easy caveats: There are always limits to making laws in a divided government. Some of the most important issues of our time are too complex to solve quickly. Writing legislation is not necessarily the best way to address a national problem. And not all bills are created equal; renaming a post office is, of course, not as credit-worthy as mandating peace in our time.

Still, the 10-year extension of the ban on plastic firearms, which President Barack Obama signed a week ago, was only the 57th public law added to the books this year. And with the House gone for the year and the post-“nuclear” Senate in no mood to compromise on the little things during this final week, no more than a handful more measures will become statutes before 2014.

There’s no way the total will reach 90 — the figure for 2011, which was the smallest annual legislative output since before World War II. As for the apples-to-apples comparisons to years when presidents were starting their second terms dealing with a divided Congress, the 2013 number will look even more meager. Bill Clinton signed 153 laws in 1997, Ronald Reagan wielded his pen 240 times in 1985, and Richard Nixon affixed his signature to 247 measures in 1973.

Add to this numbers crunched over the weekend by the New York Times, which calculated that the House’s legislative weeks lasted an average of just 28 hours this year, while the Senate is on course to have the fewest days with roll calls a non-election year since 1991 — just more than 100, depending on how this week plays out.

For all the people who will be forced to spend the next two weeks defending their role in the dysfunction — to their constituents or their in-laws — here’s a clip-and-save list of prompts for boasting about or deriding what did and did not get done in 2013. Full story

December 11, 2013

Will Paul Ryan’s High-Risk Budget Deal Return High Rewards?

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Ryan addresses his budget deal at a GOP leadership press conference Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

This week is a turning point in the career of Paul D. Ryan — one that’s even more consequential than what happened to him 16 months ago.

Being picked to be the Republican nominee for vice president, it turns out, is only guaranteed to be politically transformative if your ticket wins the general election. Engineering a genuinely bipartisan if undeniably modest budget agreement, on the other hand, is sure to change the trajectory of the 43-year-old Wisconsin congressman’s life.

Ryan will find out within a matter of hours whether the deal has propelled his ambitions forward, or accelerated his long-rising star toward oblivion.

By Wednesday evening, a day after the deal was unveiled, a ratification vote by the full House looked more and more likely. It also looked quite possible that most of Ryan’s fellow Republicans would be on board, even though all the major conservative advocacy groups are pressing for its defeat. Those outcomes are the only legislative mysteries; a solid bipartisan majority is lined up in the Senate, and President Barack Obama is eager to affix his signature.

House passage would be profoundly rewarding for Ryan for several reasons, especially if his plan secures a majority of the majority. Full story

December 8, 2013

Senators Return for 2 Weeks That Could Last a Needless Eternity

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Yellen is one of several nominees the Senate could act on before year’s end — or not. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The answer is 178 and a half hours.

The question is: What’s the maximum amount of time it could take to secure the confirmations of all six prominent nominees President Barack Obama wants to get on the job in the new year?

Only one of their timetables has been set, and it’s likely to be the exception that proves the rule: On Monday afternoon, senators will spend just 30 minutes “debating” the virtues of Patricia Ann Millett, a prominent 50-year-old Washington appellate litigator, before confirming her for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

However she distinguishes herself during that lifetime appointment, Millett will be remembered by congressional historians for this: She’s the first person to benefit from the limitations on Senate filibuster rules muscled through by the majority Democrats three weeks ago.

Since Millett was the nominal subject of five dramatic roll calls during the parliamentary maneuvering that put the “nuclear option” into effect — lowering from 60 to a simple majority the number of senators required to cut off debate on almost all nominations — Republicans agreed to not delay her final vote for the 30 hours they still have available for such protests. The duration of the Thanksgiving recess, they conceded, would suffice.

But the GOP minority has not decided how much of a fuss it will make about the other five: Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen to take the helm of the central bank, former top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson to be the fourth-ever secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency and, for the two other vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, Georgetown law professor Nina Pillard and federal trial Judge Robert Wilkins. Full story

November 22, 2013

6 Questions to Ponder About the Senate’s Nuclear Winter

Thirty years ago this week, more than 100 million Americans tuned in for the first airing of “The Day After” on ABC — the audience eager, during the final years of the Cold War, for a blockbuster vision of what the heartland might look like if both Washington and Moscow exercised their nuclear options.

On the day after the biggest change to the congressional rules in four decades — sharply curtailing the power of the filibuster, an essential element of life in the Senate — the public may be clamoring for some insight into what just happened.

These six questions and answers may help.

1. Why is it called the “nuclear option”?

The allusion to an atomic blast is as much about how the Senate rules were changed as about the way in which the rules were changed.

The breadth of the impact on the legislative process, and on the balance of power at the Capitol, is undeniably significant, although its extent cannot be precisely measured just now. The number of political players who have seen their power hobbled by the move is also extensive, but can’t yet be quantified.

In those ways, the situation is analogous to the detonating of a nuclear bomb: Plenty of the damage is plain to see, but the breadth of the fallout takes a long time to measure. For now, it’s only clear that the minority’s right to filibuster most judicial and all executive branch nominees has effectively been destroyed, and that means the Republicans are the only victims. But there is nothing to prevent efforts to end the legislative filibuster from bubbling up soon enough. And it’s a dead certainty that whenever the Republicans win control of the Senate, whether next fall or in an election years later, they will turn the tables on the newly-entrenched-in-the-minority Democrats with a vengeance.

The way in which Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., deployed his power play on Thursday also had some similarities to the start of a nuclear war. Like many missile attacks, his series of choreographed parliamentary moves and roll call votes had been threatened for a long time, was stealthy in the planning, undisguised in the execution and swift to reach completion. And it was impossible to contain the damage once the launch sequence was begun. Full story

November 12, 2013

Budgetary Tunnel Vision: No Early Light at This End

Updated 4:32 p.m. | One month before their no-penalty-attached deadline, budget negotiators will convene Wednesday morning for only their second public meeting. There’s still no sign anything was accomplished behind the scenes since the opening session two weeks ago — except maybe a downgrading of the already de minimis expectations.

As a practical matter, a grand bargain fell off the table almost as soon as the government reopened in October, and ever since then, the scope of the talks has been narrowed to one modest topic: how much discretionary spending to permit in the final two-thirds of this fiscal year. Full story

October 22, 2013

Bill Young Funeral Arrangements Turn Tributes Into Disputes

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Young, right, and then-Rep. David Obey, leaders of the Appropriations Committee, work together in 2001. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Maybe it’s tautological, but maybe, too, it’s worth a reminder that the funerals of politicians are inherently political affairs.

Still, it’s something of a gobsmacking surprise how this week’s services for C.W. Bill Young have become so overtly politicized on so many levels.

When the longest-serving congressman in Florida history, and the longest-tenured Republican in Congress, died on Oct. 18 at age 82, succumbing to complications from a chronic back injury just 10 days after announcing his retirement, he was showered with bipartisan tributes to his kindness, collegiality, collaborative skill — and relative humility for someone with such a strong hand in apportioning half a trillion dollars in military spending every year.

His were all the attributes that Republicans and Democrats alike agree are in woefully short supply in the modern Capitol. They are none of the characteristics that might predictably lead to a partisan catfight near his bier, or a wave of tea party annoyance about how generously Congress is paying its respects.

Or even an obsequious full-page tribute in The Washington Post from the nation’s biggest defense contractor. “His leadership as a great defender of our freedom will always inspire us,” Lockheed Martin gushed, leaving unspoken the irrefutable truth that Young never met a fighter jet he didn’t like. Full story

October 11, 2013

Beltway Version of ‘Groundhog Day’ Makes Us All Feel Jaded

It’s clear from last week’s polls why congressional Republicans decided to blink first in the budget standoff: Their party’s approval rating is at the lowest point in a quarter-century.

They are getting way more blame for the shutdown, and even more than they did back in 1995. Two-thirds agree with the notion that the GOP has put its political agenda ahead of what’s good for the country. There’s a rapidly expanding share of voters who want a Democratic Congress elected next year, a steady approval rating for President Barack Obama — and growing support for the health care law ever since the GOP went all-in to gut it.

Those numbers got headlines because of their obvious impact on the news of the moment. But some other results may prove more important over the long term. They provide good data to back up the complaint — from both outside and inside the Beltway — that “things in Washington really have gotten worse than they have ever been.” Full story

October 9, 2013

Cracks in the Budget Impasse? Both Sides Searching for Daylight

The formal nomination of Janet L. Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve may be anticlimactic, but it comes at a crucial moment: It creates a daylong diversion when both sides in the fiscal deadlock can assess the chance of seizing the same sliver of an opening.

Tuesday’s unyielding rhetoric, from both President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner, will not be publicly contradicted today. But, off camera, each of their teams will be working to figure out if they’re correctly interpreting signs from the other.

Both sides have given hints in the past 24 hours that they are open to a limited cease fire — a reopening of the government and an increase in the federal borrowing limit that might last only a few weeks, but could allow time to negotiate a broader budget deal. Full story

October 8, 2013

What’s in a Name? Plenty of Super-Bad Memories on Both Sides (Video)

Legislation is enacted empowering an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, senators and House members to set to work on a hurry-up timetable in search of a way out of a thick budgetary morass that has brought the country near the brink of default.

They are called a supercommittee, right?

That was absolutely true two years ago, when the nickname stuck hard and fast to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction even before its proposed creation was unveiled.

But that is absolutely not going to be the case this time, if the people who cooked up the idea for a Bicameral Working Group on Deficit Reduction and Economic Growth have anything to say about it. Full story

October 7, 2013

One-Story Town Gives a Furlough to Nonessential Legislation

And on the seventh day, Congress did not rest. Instead, lawmakers decided for the first time since the shutdown began to take votes on something wholly unrelated to their own budgetary wheel-spinning.

Those envisioning a policy-making dam about to burst will be disappointed soon enough. For as long as the conflating debates over reviving federal spending and raising the debt ceiling remain unresolved, the legislative machinery at the Capitol will remain as closed for business as so many programs and agencies are.

There is no legal or even procedural reason for this — no reason the House or Senate may not attempt the feat of walking a variety of bills forward while chewing gum at the same time in the budget impasse. But legislative multitasking, which had already become a distant memory after the dysfunctional congressional dynamics of recent years, has now disappeared almost altogether. Full story

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