Congress has a long list of urgent tasks left this year

The following editorial appeared in the Miami Herald on Tuesday, Sept. 11:

If members of Congress, like school students, had to turn in an essay on “What I did last summer,” it wouldn’t take long to write. They didn’t do much in the months leading up to August except engage in political infighting and perhaps scrounge around for scandals that might embarrass the Obama administration.

Exhausted from their labors, they then took a long recess. Thanks a lot, folks. Way to earn your pay.

This week, they’re back, facing an unfinished agenda that would require months, if not a full session, to clear up. Yet only a scant few weeks remain before lawmakers take a pre-election recess and then almost surely find themselves forced to return to the Capitol for a lame-duck session to finish the work they’ve left undone.

Topping the urgent to-do list is a six-month temporary bill to finance the government. The fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, but members have been too busy trying to score political points to actually perform one of their most basic tasks _ making sure there’s money available to fund disaster-aid accounts, pay the troops, keep the National Hurricane Center in business and so on.

It’s only a temporary measure, through next March, but it would buy time so that the next Congress — Dare we hope for more grown-ups by then? — can come up with a full-year plan. The reason it didn’t happen this time around is that the regular appropriations process collapsed about midway through the campaign season. Par for the course for the 112th Congress.

Given this poor record, the only reason to hope for action is that lawmakers realize that their standing with the voters is already at record low levels. Forcing another showdown over keeping the government open right before the Nov. 6 election would ensure that their approval ratings would sink even lower, if that’s possible.

But wait. There’s more.

Like leaving farmers across the nation high and dry due to the failure to provide a farmers’ relief bill amid one of the worst droughts in decades. Like extending a tax relief program for homeowners getting rid of their properties in short sales to avoid foreclosure. Like figuring out what to do about the looming “fiscal cliff” at the end of the year that, if left unaddressed, would almost surely drive the economy back into a tailspin.

Each of these measures is urgent because it involves a key sector of the economy and millions of Americans who are not asking members of Congress to do any heavy lifting — just their basic jobs. The failure to advance the farm bill is particularly striking given the customary non-partisan popularity of helping farmers and the growing number of counties across the country that have been declared agricultural disaster areas. This should be near the top of the unfinished agenda after getting a six-month budget deal.

Folks need help in the cities, as well — especially in places like South Florida that were hit hard by the housing collapse. Homeowners involved in a “short sale” could face a hefty tax bill unless Congress extends a law passed in 2007 that exempts them from owing money on the difference between the sale price and the underwater mortgage value. This, too, is a no-brainer for Congress.

And there is yet more, including a cybersecurity bill that ran into a filibuster just before the recess, averting a 30 percent cut in physicians’ Medicare fees and proposals to reform the Postal Service.

Can Congress do all this before its time expires? Doubtful, given the record so far. But members should at least try, which is more than they’ve done so far.

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