Wish You Weren’t Here

Even members of Congress, still in session, are feeling pretty useless this week.

U.S. Capitol building. Click image to expand.
U.S. Capitol

The Senate floor is mostly empty. When the session begins on Tuesday, the Democratic and Republican leaders shuffle the notes for their first remarks. The well of the House is emptier; the doors are closed for a pro forma session in which literally nothing is happening. The hundreds of tourists walking in and out of the gallery look more bored than people wearing T-shirts and sandals really ought to look.

You’d never know there was a debt crisis. Congress is in session this week because Republicans didn’t want a weeklong holiday recess, and Democrats obliged them. “Our country is going bankrupt,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., last week, making the ask. “We should not be going on holiday.”

It was a deal: no holiday. Congress is on emergency watch with weeks to go, maybe, before an analyst at Moody’s or S&P gets cut off in traffic, needs to vent, and decides to downgrade the credit rating of the United States. What does Congress look like on emergency watch? Picture the way Congress looks at any other time. Got it? Now: Slow it down.

The problem with this particular crisis is that Congress doesn’t really have the power to make a deal on the debt ceiling. It will, eventually, vote on a compromise plan, which Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky libertarian, may or may not try to filibuster. In the meantime, the deal is being crafted by a combination of meetings, threats of meetings, and media manipulation by a few actors: the president, the vice president, and leaders in Congress.

“The fundamental reality,” says Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who studies the Hill, “is that Congress is going to vote up or down on a package that is put together by a small number of leaders. Coming back right now is 90 percent about optics.”

How much is this about optics? On Tuesday, as he did last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell extends an offer: The president can come meet him and other leaders, and “hear what can actually pass in Congress.” This will be reported as an invitation to a meeting, but that’s not really what it is. The president is not going to give the thumbs-up to what McConnell has just described as a one-way lecture about Republican demands. In their prepared statements, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and McConnell don’t even agree on the timeline. Reid says it could be a “matter of days.” McConnell says “weeks.”

No one has figured out the right way to goad the White House about this. About the only thing anyone has figured out today is that spiking other legislation will confirm that Congress is really, really serious. The only business on the Senate floor is a resolution on the military intervention in Libya, drafted by John Kerry and John McCain. There have been objections to this, including an outright “no” vote in the House. It takes on water today because senators want to talk about debt instead.

“Instead of focusing on the issue at hand,” says Sen. Bob Corker on the floor, “we’re gonna focus on something, possibly, that is irrelevant! That has nothing to do with the issue at hand! It’s just to show that we’re doing something!”

It becomes clear that his fellow Republicans will vote against the resolution; after a little more than an hour, the resolution is pulled, and senators declare victory.

“While Libya is important,” says Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., “the issue before us right now is not Libya.”

Technically, there’s nothing else for the Senate to do all day. One more vote is put on the schedule—a vote to request that all senators show up for votes. This lasts more than an hour, and gets 83 ayes and eight nays. Just like that, the day’s work is done. This is the first day of the surprise post-holiday session, which will, theoretically, hammer out deals on debt.

Nobody’s happy about it.

“One of the main reasons I started to object last week was because of the process,” says Johnson in a chat with reporters. “For just a few people, a limited number of individuals, to go behind closed doors, far from the view of the American public—is that really going to be how we decide the financial fate of America? I do not think so! I do not believe that’s what the founders envisioned!”

And yet, it keeps happening. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., reminisces about how in December, a deal on taxes was figured out in a few high-level meetings, then voted on, and in April a deal to keep the government running was figured out in high-level meetings, then voted on. Why does this keep happening?

Well, consider these two headlines from the Los Angeles Times. From June 30: “Senate To Scrap July 4 Recess To Work on Debt-Limit Deal.” From July 4: “112th Congress Is One of the Least Productive in Years.”

Both of those stories were written by the same reporter. Taken together, they don’t make sense—at least not until you realize that legislating very little, and forcing the biggest spending cuts or caps they could get, is what a lot of Republicans came here for. And not until you realize that Senate Democrats benefit if they bring up good political votes. The only debt vote scheduled for this week is a “sense of the Senate” resolution, co-signed by 17 Democrats, which concludes:

It is the sense of the Senate that any agreement to reduce the budget deficit should require that those earning $1,000,000 or more per year make a more meaningful contribution to the deficit reduction effort.

The optics are terrific. Democrats put Republicans on the spot again. Republicans goad the president about his refusal to talk to them. If Sessions has his way, they keep talking about the balanced budget amendment, spending caps, and everything else they want discussed in order for them to accept a deal. On Thursday, the president will meet with the people actually negotiating the deal and set new terms.

“We came back,” asks Johnson, before taking the day’s final vote, “but to do what?”

Correction, July 6, 2011: This article originally included a stock photograph showing a generic assembly chamber that was incorrectly captioned “The congressional chamber.”