Do-nothing GOP plans to do even less: Here's Congress' big plan for September

Aside from a couple of spending bills, Congress will mostly focus on "midterm messaging." How about an ISIS debate?

Published September 9, 2014 11:43AM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

You've had it marked on your calendars, you bought a special pair of clothes for it, and today's the day, the political version of opening that final box on the Advent calendar and eating the piece of chocolate inside: It's the return of Congress, after an actual month-plus-long vacation. Settle in your comfiest chair and fire on CSPAN HD for an exciting month of important votes as the quest for perfection of the American project resumes.

Depending on how long it took you to read that brief opening paragraph, the September session may already be over. The House and Senate "might only be in session for a handful of legislative days" this month, the Hill reports. There are a couple of priority agenda items for each chamber to take care of: a government spending measure beyond the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30), and a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. Neither of these measures is 100 percent bankable, though. While we're going to guess that the House Republicans won't be *so dumb* as to make unreasonable demands that lead to a government shutdown this time, you never know what procedural insanity may loom in the minds of legislators if President Obama takes executive action on immigration. And reauthorization of the Ex-Im Bank is deeply unpopular on the right. The new majority leader of the House himself, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, has stated that he'd like to see it expire. It will be interesting when, in all likelihood, big business lobbyists force him to eat those words.

The Senate, meanwhile, will work on some real business, as Harry Reid says he wants to pass all appropriations bills awaiting action. That probably means a bunch of hysterically casual voice votes at the very last minute of the very last legislative day.

Funding for the government, appropriations bills, blah blah blah: These are all sideshows to the more important, gritty legislative action that will consume most of the ~6 seconds that Congress will be in session this month before the next recess through the election. We're talking about "midterm messaging bills."

This is when both the House and Senate majorities will schedule votes on bills that have no hope of going anywhere but can be used to reinforce "messaging." Just think about what would happen if these votes weren't held! Then voters would have no idea heading into Election Day that Republicans favor cutting government spending and regulations and Democrats support increasing the minimum wage.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Thursday outlined the September agenda to his members, which includes votes on a stopgap funding bill to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1, a resolution condemning the Obama administration for not notifying Congress about the exchange with the Taliban for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and a measure allowing people to keep their insurance plans under the healthcare overhaul.

The House will also vote on consolidated packages of so-called "jobs bills" it has already passed, such as expediting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and extending expired tax credits. [...]

If there is time, Reid said he would also like to revisit legislation on the minimum wage, student loans and women’s access to contraceptives. Democrats are using those issues ahead of the midterm elections to draw contrast between the two parties.

And after all of these "messaging votes" go down, voters will have a clearer idea of how they want to vote: for whichever guy shoots a gun at something or looks the fanciest on the television set.

Do you notice something missing in this laundry list of items? We notice two big ones.

First: further work on legislation to address the border crisis. Way back in the summer of 2014, the "border crisis" was a major refugee situation on the southern border with Mexico in which Central American migrant children were showing up by the thousands seeking asylum. It was the biggest news story of the time and everyone screeched about the immediate need for funding to address it. But that was like a hundred years ago, at least.

And then there's what to do about ISIS, the current primary topic driving national conversation. Is Obama going to wage an extensive military campaign, of bombing, against them in Iraq and Syria? Wouldn't the return of Congress be a fine opportunity to seek congressional authorization? (Assuming that Obama does want to engage in such a campaign, which he may not -- and doesn't have to feel obligated to do.)

The Daily Beast reports that Congress may "bow" to Obama -- as in, not hold a vote -- on his decisions regarding Syria and Iraq. That would be a silly idea all around. Hawkish members of Congress should be on the record voting for a war if they want a war. And if President Obama starts a bombing campaign without seeking new authorization, that's not only legally questionable -- what authorization does he have to attack an enemy in Syria? -- but also a political death trap. When things go wrong, he'll own the entirety of the blame.

"Messaging" bills are great fun for everyone. But surely there's a window in these "handful of legislative days" to discuss an impending war. And if there isn't, stay around another week or two. Jesus.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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