WASHINGTON – Members of Congress rushed back into town last week to rename a post office in Oklahoma, approve a non-binding resolution honoring the late economist Milton Friedman and vote on an anti-abortion bill that had no hope of becoming law.

It was an anti-climatic end to a lackluster two years. The House moved late Friday toward approval of tax and trade measures, but what will be remembered about the 109th Congress is the major legislation it killed or delayed.

Exhibit A: the annual federal budget. Lawmakers limped out of town with only two of the 11 annual spending bills complete.

As for the other nine, the Republican-led Congress passed a series of stop-gap funding measures to keep the government from shutting down until next month, when a new Congress will convene and Democrats will take control.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called it a “do-nothing Congress,” likening it to the Senate and House that drew the ire of then-President Harry Truman and prompted him to coin the term.

“This was one of the least-productive sessions of Congress in our history,” he said in an interview. “This Congress has done even less than the Congress of 1948.”

Echoed Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo.: “There’s so much to do and we’re punting. It’s irresponsible. There’s no excuse for it.”

The unfinished spending bills total more than $450 billion in annual funding for everything from agriculture to veterans programs. But they’re hardly the only left-over legislative business that the next session of Congress will find on its plate when lawmakers return.

Still in limbo:

• The multi-billion-dollar water projects bill with Mississippi River lock-and-dam construction that Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., and others had championed as vital to Midwest farmers and barge operators. The bill was on the threshold of completion, but it stalled amid disputes over its scope and reforming the Army Corps of Engineers;

• Ethics reform, which House Republican leaders put at the top of the agenda in early 2006 when the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal was unfolding. But that initiative went nowhere;

• Immigration reform, which President George W. Bush made a top priority for his second term but which fell victim to a bitter split among Republicans over the president’s so-called guest worker proposal.

These matters and more will bedevil the 110th Congress, which will feature Democratic majorities in both houses and span the final two years of Bush’s presidency.

“Not only are we going to have to finish up the “07 funding, but we’re going to simultaneously be working on a budget and the “08 appropriations bills … We will be very, very, very busy,” Emerson said.

The 109th Congress wasn’t devoid of achievement.

Lawmakers approved a bipartisan federal highway spending bill and legislation to build a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. They also renewed the Patriot Act and confirmed two new Supreme Court justices and a new defense secretary.

But both sides agree: This Congress didn’t do enough.

Lawmakers mostly pointed the finger at the other political party when trying in seeking to explain the lack of accomplishment.

Bond blamed Democrats for abusing their filibuster powers to stall important legislation and prevent debate. He added his view that Democrats on the Senate’s intelligence committee insisted on “looking backwards in the rearview mirror and not at the challenges facing the country.”

Durbin, meanwhile, said Republicans wasted time on proposed constitutional amendments banning flag burning and gay marriage, “neither of which came close to passage and both of which were totally unnecessary.”

But the meager successes of this Congress matched the time put in on the job.

The typical congressional workweek lasted from Tuesday evening until Thursday afternoon. Democrats who will lead the House next year have already told lawmakers to expect to work five days a week.

This Congress took weeklong breaks for holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day and Presidents’ Day and vacationed for two weeks in mid-April, in addition to the customary August recess.

“The smallest number in our lifetime,” said congressional historian Norman Ornstein, of working days in the 109th Congress. “A pretty pathetic output.”

Ornstein said it’s hard for Congress to fulfill its institutional obligations when its members are out of the office more than they’re in Washington.

“The schedule really matters. If you don’t create the expectation that members of Congress are going to be around here five days a week … then all the other things you want to happen are not going to happen,” said Ornstein, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“You can’t write good legislation; you can’t do oversight; you can’t have debate. There’s no time for anything,” he said.

Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., D-Mo., promised that the next session of Congress “will be 10 times more productive than the one we just went through.”

“That’s what we are paid for – to come in here and work,” Clay said in an interview. “I don’t mind being here and working five days a week because most Americans do work five days a week.”

Emerson said the Tuesday-Thursday preference gained traction years ago when leaders wanted to make the lawmakers’ jobs more “family-friendly.” But lawmakers could benefit from spending more time together, she said.

“On Tuesdays, we should have come in at 9 a.m. instead of waiting until 6:30. The Congress got along a whole lot better when people socialized better as well as worked together,” Emerson said.

Not since 2000 had Congress passed a water projects bill for the nation; this time, both the House and Senate passed separate versions. But even though they had almost three months to resolve their differences, a joint panel couldn’t get the job done.

The measure would have funneled $3.77 billion toward lock-and-dam construction and environmental restoration on the upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers, along with millions more for St. Louis-area projects.

Now, work on the bill will have to start over in January. Both chambers will need to craft new versions and send them through the entire process.

Bond, who engineered the water bill’s Senate passage this year, called its failure his biggest disappointment of the 109th Congress.

“This was the Senate versus the House … We got it done on the Senate side, but it takes two to tango,” Bond said. “They weren’t willing to tango with us on the House side.”

Paul Rohde, president of a river commerce association based in St. Louis, declared it “death by a whimper.” He said his organization is frustrated after leading the charge for the lock construction on behalf of barge operators, farmers and labor unions in the region.

“I had to laugh, and not in a good way, when I read the initial reports that they just ran out of time,” said Rohde, who heads St. Louis-based MARC 2000.

Bond blamed the House members of the joint House-Senate panel assigned to iron out one comprehensive water bill. House members sought “extremely excessive spending” by trying to add other projects.


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