It’s interesting what happens when rubber hits the road.
During the latest federal government shutdown threat, money for victims of natural disasters became the focal point of what passes for discussion these days Washington.
When you look at Congress’s job description, it boils down to passing laws and writing a federal spending plan. As the 2012 elections close in, lawmakers are becoming less and less able — or inclined — to do either ... at least not without pounding chests and pointing figures and firing off bursts of angry indignation first.
Case in point: The Republican-led House sent the Democrat-run Senate a spending bill that sent additional funds to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which said it was about to close up shop because money was running out faster than the fiscal year that ends Friday, that offset that expenditure by cutting money from green energy programs. House members then went home.
Senate Democrats balked at the quid pro quo on spending, and the battle of rhetoric — the lone aspect of Congress that works remarkably well these days — began in earnest. Several senators noted that they stayed on the job while their counterparts in the House left town.
Each side has tried to portray the other in the worst possible light. Democrats said Republicans were holding up emergency aid for disaster victims and that it was unfair to predicate that spending on cuts. Some wondered whether a disaster would occur and the victims be told that they would only get help if Congress cut something else. Looking for a double dose of inflammation, the suggestion the GOP might insist on education spending being required.
Republicans argued the entire hullabaloo was orchestrated and pointed to the fact that FEMA, which was out of money, somehow managed to “find” the governmental equivalent of a forgotten $20 bill in your jeans pocket — $175 million. The agency spends about $35 million a day, so the prospects of making it to the new fiscal year, which starts Saturday, suddenly seemed more promising. They say Democrats are ignoring support for cutting federal spending that gave Republicans control of the House and ended Democrats’ hopes of a filibuster-proof Senate.
Regardless of which of the two camps you fall into — or the ever going third one consisting of Americans who are tired of the whole inability of Congress to do what it was elected to do — one particular sentence uttered by a U.S. senator summed up the situation as well as any. “It is embarrassing,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said Sunday on CNN.
The result of this clash of ideologies has been a lack of confidence in Congress by the American public. Only about one in five Americans approve of Congress’s performance these days, and we suspect that 20 percent hasn’t been paying enough attention.
The concern is that we’ll be in for a lot more of the same the rest of the year, and maybe on into 2012. Congress, through its 12-member House and Senate “Super Congress,” is supposed to find a way this fall to cut $1.5 trillion from federal spending over the next decade to avoid the gun lawmakers have pointed at their own collective head — an automatic cut of $1.2 trillion in federal spending, including domestic and defense programs, if they fail to make a deal.
It’ll take an act of Congress to avoid the potential disaster the would be caused by an inaction by Congress.