Robert Ehlert: Lawmakers should stay in Washington until budget is done

May 5, 2013 

Lee Judge / The Kansas City Star (May 2, 2013)


Many in the press and public like to refer disparagingly to the extended trips home for senators and members of Congress as "vacations." The more neutral term is "recess" because one or both of the chambers is in recess. Senators and House members would have you believe they come back for "district or state work periods."

Call it what you like. We get it. We understand that senators and House members must come back to their states and districts regularly to answer for their votes, to solve constituent problems, host town halls and other events, to immerse themselves in local and statewide issues, to be with family and - last but not least, to raise money for campaign war chests. Other times these periods are used to travel domestically or internationally on fact-finding missions.

But what we don't get is why a federal legislative body with a 15 percent approval rating is coming home so often lately when there is so much to be done back in Washington.

There was a 16-day vacation-recess-district/state work period from March 23 to April 8. Both chambers are about to complete a nine-day vacation-recess-district/state work period and return Monday. Coming right up is another nine-day vacation-recess-district work period over the Memorial Day "weekend" - May 25 through June 2.

By our tabulations that adds up to a 34-day vacation-recess-district/state work period during a 73-day span, or, roughly, being on vacation-recess-district/state work period for about half the time while the country is being run without a budget and under the pressure of sequester cutbacks. We could go on and on with the list of the things that are suspended in the vapors of nothingness by not being focused in Washington.

The Idaho congressional delegation - all Republicans - didn't create these House and Senate calendars, but they and the other 531 senators and House members of both parties are living by them. Both Democrats and Republicans are allowing their lives and ours to be run by House and Senate calendars that don't seem to be tethered to present realities.

Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Jim Risch, both Idaho Republicans, happened to come by the office this week to meet with our editorial board. Neither considers their trips home to be any vacation - and they cited lengthy dawn-to-dusk schedules, including a visit to the Statesman.

Simpson, who is hopeful that a "Grand Bargain" can be brokered on a budget that could satisfy both political parties and pass both the House and Senate in a narrow window between now and October, agreed that the House and Senate calendars are frustrating progress.

"If you're trying to solve a problem, it's a problem," Simpson said. He has complained to House Speaker John Boehner that both the recess schedule and the session schedule have left little time for committees to conduct proper oversight of the government and agencies.

When home visiting with Idahoans he often explains to them about what he is up against in Washington. Many turn to him and ask, "Then why are you here?"

He half-jokingly suggested that "maybe they should lock us in a room to solve this problem."

Risch, for his part, is not so optimistic that even lock-down meetings on the part of Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would result in more face-to-face debate and progress toward a budget.

Risch said the Democrats and Republicans in the Senate are so ideologically polarized on the budget that "there is nothing happening when we're back there and nothing happening when we're not back there."

Saying that the 15 percent approval rating of Congress is "too high," Risch suggested that the only thing that really motivates and unites the two parties and the two chambers is a "crisis."

One of the strongest uniting issues of the moment is the public disgust with Congress. It doesn't have to be that way.

Boehner's House and Reid's Senate could and should, as soon as Monday, scrap all vacation-recess-district/state work periods and have their lieutenants draft a new one with a single order of business until further notice: negotiate a budget.

The country has been adrift without a annual budget for going on two years, rock-skipping with continuing resolutions from one shore of drama to the next.

The sequester, which seems to work like termites, is only being dealt with when symptoms interrupt the trips home of a Congress that doesn't need to travel right now.

There is a window of possibility from May to October to get agreement on the "Grand Bargain" Simpson speaks so optimistically about.

Yes, there will be pain for all. Cuts in discretionary spending - one third of our budget - cannot continue to be the only sacrifice at our altar of debt. Both parties are going to have to get to work on reforms of entitlement programs, which amount to two-thirds of our budget, and which grow larger in size with your every breath.

Time needs to stand still in Congress until something is done.

Robert Ehlert is the Idaho Statesman's editorial page editor.

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