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POLITICS: PennAve

Congress kicks back as campaign politics takes over

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Congress has entered an early hibernation period.

Between now and Election Day in November, lawmakers are unlikely to undertake any serious legislative efforts as they try to keep their heads down and their poll figures up.

“There is this attitude that members of Congress don’t want the story to be about themselves. This is bipartisan,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action. “That isn’t to say there isn’t a huge opportunity to put forward a compelling message to the American people.”

Legislative observers predict that the months ahead will be packed with so-called "messaging bills," legislation that serves little purpose other than to position each party in a way that rallies its base and frames its positions in a favorable light.

“We’re just putting our feet up on our desk until the lame duck [session, after Election Day]. I don’t think a lot is going to happen except messaging bills. We didn’t hardly do anything in 2013, and that wasn’t even an election year,” one legislative staffer told the Washington Examiner.

Democrats are expected to push on issues like pay equity for women and raising the minimum wage, while Republicans will hone in on regulatory reform and other economic issues.

Halting serious legislative work in favor of political messaging is a Washington ritual in campaign season.

“In the last several years, there hasn’t been a whole lot done in these even-numbered years leading up to elections,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There are political incentives not to accept just a half-loaf — why not wait and see who controls the Senate after the elections?”

But there are signs that this year's shift into campaign mode is happening even earlier than in previous election cycles. In years past, there have been major legislative accomplishments even into the summer. The Affordable Care Act passed the House in March 2010, and student loan and transportation legislation was signed into law by President Obama in July 2012.

“This is pretty early on, where they have everything off the table. There’s a case to be made that it’s more apparent this time that most legislative activity has been taken care of already, or been pushed off to a rather large lame duck period,” Holler said.

There are issues that Congress can’t ignore: The Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in early fall, and lawmakers will have to pass legislation to continue funding the government through the new fiscal year, which starts in October.

Government assurances that it will help cover losses from terrorist attacks, created after 9/11, also will expire this year. Some observers, like Holler, believe that the relatively uncontroversial provision, known as the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, could be passed by both chambers this summer.

Anything else of national importance but without a deadline is "probably pushed over to the lame duck,” Binder said. Immigration reform, for example, will likely remain on the sidelines until lawmakers have finished campaigning.

“The best shot to do anything related to immigration this year is in the lame duck,” said the legislative staffer, who works on immigration issues.

On a more pedestrian front, committees will be marking up authorization bills as part of regular business. The House Armed Services Committee, for example, is expected to release the framework for its annual defense policy bill this week.

“The markups are following the schedules of what they’ve been in recent memory. The House has followed [its timeline] for the past few years, and the Senate seems to be tracking what recent history has shown for them,” a top defense industry lobbyist said.

Despite tensions with Russia, cyber-warfare concerns, violence in Africa and counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, Congress is taking a laid-back approach to national security. For lobbyists, the coming months will not be a good time to approach lawmakers on new issues -- unless they happen to be freed from campaign obligations altogether.

“Elections are always the focal point, and that’s what members will have to focus on, especially in the House. But where they’re retiring, like [House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck] McKeon, or [Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl] Levin, they’re focused on getting things done,” the lobbyist said. “What do we anticipate happening for the rest of the year? Not a whole lot.”

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