One-Story Town Gives a Furlough to Nonessential Legislation
Posted at 5:46 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2013
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.
For reasons both political and logistical, a divided Congress that had been struggling to tackle more than one headline-worthy topic at a time has now decided to postpone almost all of its back-burner matters as well — at least until federal workers are all back at work and the threat of default has been ended.
On Monday evening, the Senate overwhelmingly endorsed a pair of 40-something lawyers — white-collar defense attorney Sara Ellis and prosecutor Colin Bruce — for federal trial court judgeships in Illinois. But since neither had generated anything resembling controversy, the confirmations were just another pair of bed-check votes, arranged at the beginning of most weeks so the leaders can see who’s in town and who’s missing, and maybe do a little whipping on more controversial matters looming in the days ahead.
Still, those were the first roll calls in either chamber since Sept. 30 that didn’t address funding for all or parts of the government. The House has voted two dozen times since on spending measures, most recently a bill on Monday to reopen every office at the Food and Drug Administration. The Senate has rejected continuing resolutions with Obamacare strings attached three times while ignoring all the House’s niche CRs.
More consequential than the judicial votes, at least at first blush, was Monday’s hastily convened gathering of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which advanced the nomination of 29-year McKinsey & Co. veteran Beth Cobert to become the government’s chief performance officer as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget — a job that’s been vacant since April.
That marked the first action of any kind by a congressional committee since the shutdown started. All four legislative markups planned in House committees last week were postponed, as were a pair of similar sessions by Senate panels and another pair of committee votes on nominees.
The wheels will turn only a little bit more in the days ahead. On Tuesday, Senate Energy will advance the nominations of Bureau of Reclamation head Michael Connor to be deputy Interior secretary and NASA Chief Financial Officer Beth Robinson to be undersecretary of Energy. On Thursday, Senate Intelligence will mark up a bill to recalibrate some of the ground rules for electronic surveillance.
In the House, Homeland Security still plans a subcommittee markup of a pair of minor housekeeping bills Wednesday, and Foreign Affairs says it will debate a measure Thursday to smooth a wrinkle in international childhood abduction law.
And that will be it for legislative action — assuming that none of those markups won’t be postponed (some of them for a second time) in deference to the shutdown.
The effect has also been pronounced on the calendar for hearings, which are supposed to lay the policy predicates in advance of any legislation. At least 37 have been postponed since the shutdown began, about twice as many as have proceeded on schedule.
There are practical rationales for all this schedule shuffling and scaling back. The maintenance crews that arrange the committee rooms for official meetings and clean them up afterward have been significantly hampered by furloughs at the Architect of the Capitol’s office. Many of the committee counsels and legislative aides who write the opening statements, prepare the questions and cook up the amendments have also been sent home for the duration.
The same holds true for many of the mid-level officials who could normally be counted on to appear as witnesses on behalf of the administration at the sorts of hearings the cable news networks won’t cover, or to work off-camera to advance the president’s point of view at legislative drafting sessions.
But the more viable reason is that the leaders of both parties have decided that, at a time when Washington has become what the press corps calls a “one-story town,” it’s best if Congress is being perceived as being singularly focused on bringing that story to an end. Turning even one eye to the other important issues of the day might be seen as turning a blind eye to the budget impasse.
And so the debates on the future of aid to local schools, the Postal Service, job training programs, food stamps, crop subsidies, the federal backstop for mortgages, flood control projects, and sales taxes on Internet purchases — not to mention immigration policy and gun control — have all been furloughed until further notice.
Christina Parisi and Alejandra Lopez contributed reporting.