As Congress wraps up work, much left undoneby Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are about to hit the campaign trail in earnest.
The House of Representatives finished up work Friday and won't come back until after the November elections. The Senate is also poised to go on a break, and there's a lot of work that this Congress has left unfinished.
Standing in front of the U.S. Capitol last week, Hastings farmer Bill Sorg summed up some of the reasons why Congressional approval ratings remain at rock bottom levels.
"There's been a little bit of a lack of civility, a little bit of a lack of compromise that I think is all part of democracy that's maybe lacking here," Sorg said.
FARM BILL STALLED
Sorg was in town to rally for the House to pass a farm bill before the current one expires at the end of this month.
The Senate passed a bill months ago but infighting among Republicans has kept the House from bringing its version to the floor. Dairy farmers are particularly worried.
One of its provisions that supports the price of milk is set to expire at the end of the year. If that happens it would effectively double the wholesale price of milk.
"If the government was willing to buy those products at twice the price of what our regular customers are, we'd have to consider doing that," said Steve Krikava, director of government relations for Land O'Lakes, the giant dairy cooperative based in Minnesota.
He said if the big co-ops chose to sell to the government, that would cause chaos for food companies and consumers.
WAITING FOR NCLB REVAMP
The farm bill is just one of dozens of issues that Congress has failed to tackle this year that have an impact on Minnesota.
Another is rewriting the No Child Left Behind education law. Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said an update of the law, which is widely viewed as flawed by many educators, would have been nice to have.
"So that we know, and it's sustainable and it's predictable about what we are going to be doing around accountability and support to our schools," Cassellius said.
Both the House and Senate Education Committees approved legislation but leaders in both chambers didn't bring bills to the floor.
Republican U.S. Rep. John Kline, who represents Minnesota's 2nd District and chairs the House Education Committee, said that the Obama Administration's decision to issue waivers to states — including Minnesota — from some provisions of the law meant that school administrators no longer had any urgency to lobby Congress for changes.
"You can't get the numbers behind legislation like No Child Left Behind reauthorization without pressure, and I use that word advisedly, from your constituents, from teachers, superintendents and principals, saying 'you've got to fix the law here,' " Kline said.
FUTURE OF THE USPS
Another issue that's been left sitting on the back burner is how to put the Postal Service on a sound fiscal footing.
The Postal Service already missed a $5.5 billion payment to its retiree health fund a few months ago and is set to miss another payment at the end of this month.
Richard Haefner, the president of the Minnesota Postal Workers Union, notes that several years ago, Congress forced the post office to spend billions more than private companies do pre-funding its retirement obligations.
"This whole thing is the fault of Congress," Haefner said.
The Senate passed a bipartisan bill in the spring to firm up the Postal Service's finances, but the House hasn't voted on any legislation.
"They just will not take any action at all." Haefner said.
Haefner said if the Postal Service's finances deteriorate further, hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs in Minnesota could be threatened.
And then there's the fiscal cliff, a series of automatic tax hikes and deep spending cuts that could take effect January 1.
That deadline was supposed to focus lawmakers' minds on fixing the nation's financial problems, but no solution is likely to emerge until after the election.
State Economist Tom Stinson said if nothing happens, paychecks would see an effective 5 percent cut, which he says would probably throw the state and national economies into a recession.
"Everybody's going to see these tax increases on January 7 or January 10 or whenever you get your first paycheck, and that's really the concern," Stinson said.
Many of these issues will now have to be tackled by a lame-duck Congress that will meet after the election. But already, some lawmakers are talking about pushing off a resolution of many of the big issues for another six months.
- All Things Considered, 09/21/2012, 5:18 p.m.