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Lots of unresolved issues as Congress goes on vacation

Tax reform? Nope. Immigration reform? Forget about it. Spending bills? No way.

Congress left town this week for a month-long recess with a minuscule list of accomplishments and an extraordinary amount of frustration.

Not only has Congress been unable to do the things it is supposed to do – it’s supposed to pass annual spending bills, for example – it has not addressed any of the items that both Republicans and Democrats agree need addressed.

“Wherever you look, you see inaction and delay,” said Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a moderate think tank. “And when you add it all up, you have a large and growing heap of undone public business.”

Congress, in some cases, was quick to join in on that criticism.

“Congress is not dealing with the big issues,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. “It’s getting some stuff done, sure. But Congress is not doing its job for the American people.”

Here are some of those big issues:

Immigration reform

When the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill in June 2013, proponents of immigration reform were hopeful that the nation’s convoluted system would be addressed. The House initially said it would adopt a piecemeal approach to reforming the system. But many Republicans say they’re reluctant to pass a bill because they do not trust President Barack Obama to implement it.

The issue came to a head during the final days of July, when Congress was pressed to respond to an influx of thousands of children at the nation’s southern border. Obama requested more than $3 billion to deal with the issue. The Senate introduced a bill that would spend $2.7 billion addressing the issue, but was unable to pass the measure before going home for August. And the House scrambled late last week before passing a bill aimed at limiting Obama’s power to prevent undocumented immigrants from being deported. The bill has zero chance of becoming law, however – both Senate Democrats and Obama oppose it.

But before they passed it, they scrapped an earlier version of the bill in a chaotic scene that left some members scrambling to reschedule flights home.

“The biggest word for me is frustrating,” said Columbus-area Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Jefferson Twp., who said she thought the earlier bill might’ve passed with both Democratic and some Republican support.

Tax reform

Rep. David Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in February released a draft bill reforming the nation’s cumbersome tax code. The bill landed with a resounding thud. Asked about the specifics – or if he planned to put it to the House to vote on – House Speaker John Boehner replied, “blah, blah, blah.”

Columbus-area Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Twp., said Boehner’s remarks should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in the issue. He said instead, Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., was not interested in the House acting unless both President Barack Obama and the Senate had demonstrated a similar commitment to tax reform.

“His concern, from where he sits, was if the House just did this unilaterally, it would become partisan in the House and be used for campaign fodder in the general election against Republicans,” Tiberi said.

Tiberi said he’s also concerned that Congress has yet to pass a package of tax extenders that would renew tax cuts and tax provisions that expired at the end of 2013. Some 55 tax provisions await action.

Spending bills

At the beginning of this year, both Republicans and Democrats were bullish on the prospect of the House and Senate passing their spending bills in time and as designed, with each side passing individual spending bills, then ironing out differences in the two bills and sending them on to the president.

They both hoped to avoid a massive catch-all spending bill, in part because of a budget agreement spearheaded by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., last year meant Congress could skip its traditional yearly battle over the budget.

But when Congress gaveled out of session last week, it had not sent one spending bill to the president.

Not for lack of trying: The House passed seven of its 12 appropriations bills. The Senate, however, has passed none. This means they’ll have to pass those bills – most likely in a combined fashion – either before the election or in December.

“They are as bad as college students writing a term paper in terms of pulling an all-nighter,” said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a taxpayer watchdog.

Veterans and highway spending

Even the things that have gotten done haven’t been satisfying. Both the House and Senate passed a short-term bill to extend the nation’s highway program through May 2015. Critics groused that the bill punted the problem, doing nothing to serve the long-term, more ominous problem of the highway transportation program’s funding problems.

On a brighter note, though, Congress sent to Obama a bill that would allow veterans who have waited for care at a VA health facility to go to private medical providers instead. Tiberi, who was among those voted for it, still worried that the bill did little to address long-term cultural problems at the VA that have hurt veterans’ care.

In all, Obama has signed 138 bills into law this Congress. Of those, 102 originated in the House and 36 in the Senate.

But Congress’ inaction on major issues, Ellis said, hurts taxpayers.

“There’s a cost of inaction,” he said. “If we’ve identified a problem and we’re not dealing with it, there’s a cost associated with it.”

Each side is quick to point fingers for why Congress has not done more. Tiberi blames Democrats for the stalemate, saying while Obama likes to blame the House, “we’re only one body.”

“They control more of Washington than we do,” he said of Democrats.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, sees it differently.

House Republicans, he said, “have not done any really serious legislating.” He cites the nearly party-line vote to sue Obama last week as evidence that they’re not interested in solving problems.

He said the tight margins in the Senate force mean that Senate bills must be bipartisan to pass. “The irony here is that what’s not got done in many ways is the business agenda,” he said.

Galston said that it’s unlikely that any of the looming issues will be resolved when Congress returns to Washington in September. “Right before the elections?” he asked. “Give me a break.”

He said Congress’ inability to get things done reflects the country’s deep divisions.

“Wherever this polarization started – whether it came up from the bottom or down from the top – it’s now in the country and not just in the Capital,” he said. “And the American people at some point are going to have to make up their minds where they want to go.”

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