August 3, 2013

Our View: Housing-highway bill's delay no way to govern

Senate use of the filibuster to kill the measure shows disregard for the democratic process.

Most of us try to clean off our desks before summer vacation. Not wanting to come back to a half-done to-do list, we finish all pending items on our agenda, then take off for some rest and relaxation.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Thursday’s filibuster of the housing and transportation appropriations bill was justified because the bill exceeded mandated spending limits. But Senate Republicans didn’t offer program-by-program cuts to shrink the bill Thursday.

Members of Congress, on the other hand, showed this week that they're perfectly willing to leave important tasks hanging before heading out the door for their August recess.

A critical housing and transportation bill is a prime example. The measure was stalled Thursday and is effectively dead, thanks to an aggressive 11th-hour lobbying effort by Mitch McConnell, the Senate's top Republican.

The bill's fate shows a disturbing willingness on the part of Republican leaders to dig their heels in at the expense of a functional, deliberative policymaking process. And it doesn't bode well for Congress' chances of reaching a budget deal and averting a government shutdown.

The Senate housing and transportation bill had been expected to pass relatively easily. It was carefully crafted. It received bipartisan support in committee. It would have funded road and bridge repairs and community development grants for local projects, creating jobs and putting federal money to work for the people.

Instead of using the democratic process to make changes in the bill, however, McConnell used a quirk in Senate rules to stall it. A proposal to end a McConnell-driven filibuster on the bill died; Maine's Susan Collins, who helped write the bill, was the only Senate Republican to vote to end debate and move the proposal forward.

The Senate minority leader said the $54 billion transportation and housing bill was over-generous and that a filibuster was justified because the proposal exceeded spending levels required under automatic budget cuts. It's surprising, then, that, as Collins pointed out, none of her Republican colleagues offered program-by-program cuts to shrink the bill. Killing a bill with a filibuster isn't substantive governing; that entails collaboration and compromise.

The immediate future doesn't look much brighter. A companion House transportation and housing bill was pulled from consideration Wednesday when moderate Republicans balked at the depth of proposed spending cuts.

If there's no agreement by the end of September -- and Congress will have just nine working days that month -- lawmakers will have to pass a temporary solution keeping federal transportation and housing agencies operating under the current budget. This appears to be the most likely outcome under a Congress that has abundantly demonstrated its reluctance to commit itself to carrying out the people's business.


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