Thursday, December 12, 2013

Defrosting Capitol Hill? -- Dec. 12, 2013 column

Asked how to start writing a novel, Ernest Hemingway supposedly replied, “First you defrost the refrigerator.”
Ah, procrastination. Everyone puts off getting to work – and Congress is the classic repeat offender. But Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin deserve kudos for defrosting the Capitol fridge – at least for a while. We can all hope the thaw lasts so Congress can do its job.
Murray, a liberal Democrat who heads the Senate budget committee, and Ryan, a conservative Republican who’s chairman of the House budget panel, did what many thought impossible. They delivered a compromise budget agreement that keeps the government open -- no shutdown! -- for two years. During a couple of months of negotiations, they reportedly bonded over football and fishing and agreed, for the greater good of the country, on a deal neither likes much.
“I see this agreement as a step in the right direction,” Ryan said Tuesday, announcing the agreement. “In a divided government, you don’t always get what you want.”
“For far too long here in Washington, D.C., compromise has been considered a dirty word, especially when it comes to the budget,” Murray said. “We have broken through the partisanship and the gridlock.”
Breaking through partisanship and gridlock, even temporarily and for a modest deal, is no small matter. Since 2011, Congress has staggered from budget crisis to budget crisis, raising the blood pressure of the business leaders and infuriating ordinary citizens. The last crisis ended in a 16-day government shutdown in October and low approval ratings for Congress.
The bipartisan deal is far from perfect. It’s not a Grand Bargain that tames the country’s appetite for entitlement programs. It’s an OK deal that has more thorns than blossoms.
Ryan insists the deal doesn’t raise taxes, but Republicans balk at its higher airport and other fees. Democrats resent the lack of an extension of unemployment benefits for more than a million long-term jobless workers. The deal also trims pensions of younger military retirees and requires new federal workers to contribute more to their pensions.
President Barack Obama approves, saying, “This agreement doesn’t include everything I’d like – and I know many Republicans feel the same way. That’s the nature of compromise.”
My favorite comment on the deal came from Eugene Steuerle, budget expert at the Urban Institute, who told the Washington Post: "With this little package, we're not going to climb out of the hole we've dug. All we're doing is agreeing to stop throwing shovels at each other."
Members of Congress get to go home for Christmas, unlike last year. But the masters of putting off until tomorrow what they should have done yesterday have much work ahead. Their to-do list is long, starting with the farm bill, immigration reform, raising the minimum wage and tax reform.     
On C-SPAN the other morning, a viewer named Johnny from Woodbridge, Va., called Democratic Rep. John Garamendi of California on the carpet for Congress’ slack work habits. Johnny said members of Congress don’t even work 10 hours a month.
“We actually work at least 10 hours a month,” Garamendi said, although he conceded, “The amount of work is very, very slim.”
When another viewer suggested Congress should work harder earlier in the session, Garamendi said, “Congress doesn’t act much differently than most of us did in high school and college.” He sounded flip but Congress loves to bunch its work at the end.
“It’s human nature. Sort of like college students cramming for exams,” says Martin P. Paone, who retired in 2008 after 30 years on the Senate Democratic cloakroom staff.
Senate Historian Donald Ritchie notes that in the very first Congress, Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania complained in his diary that he was overwhelmed by bills in the last days of that Congress. Maclay said he didn't have enough time to read everything that was coming through, Ritchie said. Some things never change.
But with the 2014 congressional elections, the House is scheduled to be in session only 113 days next year, nearly two weeks less than this year. More work is likely to pile up or be postponed. Murray and Ryan may have defrosted the refrigerator, but there’s a loaded freezer waiting in the congressional garage.
© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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