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Congress Is Almost as Dysfunctional as Ever

It's unable to address these three big issues

Getty Images/Roger L. Wollenberg

The foreign policy crises ongoing in Israel and Ukraine have rightfully dominated the news over the past week. But back in the United States, Congress is hurriedly trying to pass three pieces of legislation before the August recess—two to combat domestic crises and one to prevent one from happening.

You’ll remember hearing about each of these over the past few months. The most recent one is happening at the Southern border where 57,000 unaccompanied migrant children have entered the United States illegally since last fall. President Barack Obama wants $3.7 billion in emergency funding, while House Republicans want changes to a 2008 child trafficking law and stronger border security measures. In other words, the sides aren’t close to a deal. In fact, things seem to be going backwards. Last Thursday, Senator Ted Cruz introduced legislation that could kill any agreement. On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told Obama to “get serious” about the border and House Speaker John Boehner accused the president of flip-flopping on whether to reform the trafficking law. Those aren't optimistic comments.

But there is better news on infrastructure spending. The two sides have agreed upon legislation to prevent the Highway Trust Fund, which funds infrastructure projects, from running out of money. Without a new revenue source, the Fund will be unable to reimburse states for different projects, delaying necessary repairs and costing workers their jobs. The Senate will vote on House-passed legislation today to avert such a crisis. You may be thinking, “Hey, Congress did its job.” But not so fast. The only way the two sides reached a deal was by using a budget gimmick as a short-term spending offset. In effect, they kicked the can down the road. If that’s what counts for competence, it’s a pretty low bar.

Congress is also trying to complete legislation before the August recess to reduce wait times at Veterans Affairs Hospitals after the scandal in the spring. The House and Senate have actually agreed upon a bill, but are hung up on the cost. The Congressional Budget Office originally scored it as costing $35 billion over the next two years and $50 billion per year thereafter if the changes were made permanent. CBO has since lowered the score a bit, but lawmakers are still trying to determine an exact cost estimate. Congressional dysfunction may actually be a victory in disguise here, as the legislation would likely do more harm than good. But it shows that even in a case when the two sides agree, they still have trouble passing a law.

The good news is that there is no debt ceiling deadline looming and both the House and Senate are likely to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government through the midterm elections. That means we won’t default and the government won't shut down. But Congress has proven almost fully inept at responding to the border crisis, VA scandal, and impending bankruptcy of the Highway Trust Fund. Apparently, only fiscal calamity is incentive enough to act.

Danny Vinik

Things to know

BOTCHED EXECUTION: A man died nearly two hours into an Arizona execution that should have lasted 10 minutes. The lethal injection left him “gasping,” which again raises the debate over whether these executions count as cruel and unusual punishment. (Ben Jacobs, Daily Beast)

OBAMACARE: Another study, this one from the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, finds that the law substantially reduced the number of people without health insurance. (NEJMAP)

ECONOMY: Thursday marks exactly five years since minimum wage workers received a federal raise, up to $7.25 an hour. In 1968, the $1.60 minimum wage was worth around $10 in today’s dollars.

Things to read

Sentence of the day: From Ed Kilgore, imagining GOP reaction if the Supreme Court eventually upholds the Halbig decision. "Most Republicans would greet the human catastrophe of an upholding of the D.C. Circuit panel’s ruling in Halbig by firing their Open Carry guns in the air and snake-dancing to the nearest public square for a hoedown with speechifying. (Washington Monthly)

PovertyDylan Matthews surveys the academic evidence on a guaranteed basic income—and discovers that it might not be a bad idea. (Vox)

Your facepalm moment of the day: Incoming House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy criticized President Obama for talking about climate change when he should be focusing on the hardships caused by California's drought. (Kate Sheppard, Huffington Post)

Things to watch

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will unveil his long-awaited anti-poverty agenda at 9:00 am at the American Enterprise Institute.

Things at QED

Rebecca Leber reports that Republicans listen to the Pentagon on just about everything, except when it says that climate change is real. Rebecca also explains why the Department of Transportation's safety rules for trains to prevent oil explosions, which it proposed on Wednesday, aren't good enough. Mike Konczal argues that the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory bill has had a number of successes, although more work needs to be done.