The Republican-controlled Congress returns from August recess today, having put off its homework for as long as it possibly could.
Republicans have 22 days to come up with a plan to keep the government open for the next fiscal year, and they have not even begun to negotiate with congressional Democrats or the White House over how big the budget should be.
When, or if, that problem is resolved, Republicans will soon face another deadline. Failing this past summer to reconcile House and Senate differences over a long-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund, Congress must do something or else the fund goes offline on October 29th, making it impossible to fund any new transportation projects.
And then, in all likelihood, the debt ceiling will be need to be lifted sometime in November or December, a basic housekeeping function that Republicans recoil from whenever a Democrat is in the White House.
When voters gave Republicans full control of the Congress last November, Republican leaders promised them a professionally run institution.
“First thing I need to do is get the Senate back to normal,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Specific to the annual budget, McConnell pledged, “We need to return to regular order. We need to get committees working again. We need to recommit to a rational, functional appropriations process.”
That promise is already broken.
McConnell failed to lead a “rational, functional appropriations process,” instead pushing party-line spending bills that Senate Democrats filibustered.
Democrats, rationally, insisted on bipartisan talks to hammer out a compromise that would attract both a congressional majority and the president’s signature. McConnell refused, instead choosing to, once again, govern by manufactured crisis.
Presumably McConnell thought that would maximize his negotiating leverage, but the conservative obsession with defunding Planned Parenthood risks sapping that leverage and forcing Republican leaders to beg for Democratic votes.
McConnell is trying, gently, to put the rabid right-wing in its place by asserting the obvious: “The president’s made it very clear he’s not going to sign any bill that includes defunding of Planned Parenthood so that’s another issue that awaits a new president hopefully with a different point of view.” But the Ted Cruz-led right is not mollified by logic.
McConnell could have drawn a firm line early, and kept his promise for a functional Congress, by entering into bipartisan talks months ago. But he was too afraid of his right flank to do so.
From a short-term political perspective, McConnell’s hesitancy is understandable. Many on the left, myself included concluded two years ago that Speaker John Boehner had no choice but to directly confront the pro-shutdown Tea Party caucus. We were wrong. He let them run into a brick wall first, so he could later end the shutdown without sparking a intraparty civil war.
Boehner’s political finesse kept the party unified, positioning it to win the 2014 midterms. But it was far from the epitome of good governance, the ideal McConnell claimed to be striving for.
Both Republican leaders are already stuck trying to keep the government open through a last-minute, slapdash “continuing resolution” instead of the more professional “regular order,” which allows for more precise budgeting and smarter government.
In other words, Republicans can’t earn an “A” grade this fall, but still have a chance at a “C.”
But if we have to go through another temporary shutdown to arrive at that bare minimum of a legislative conclusion, that will be another “F” on the Republican transcript, with two more major assignments left to go in the semester.