Just as kids are heading back to school, Congress is gliding through a five-week vacation.
If senators and House members returned home from Washington with a mid-term grade in hand, it surely would be "incomplete." After seven months of short work weeks and long weekends, Congress has yet to complete even one of the 12 bills required to fund the government. Everything from military operations in Afghanistan and security at diplomatic outposts around the globe to meat inspections and air-traffic control at home is unsettled.
The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. With just nine work days scheduled in September, you would usually expect a resolution authorizing federal agencies to continue operating at their present, post-sequester funding levels — the congressional equivalent of a homework pass.
Instead, you may see another Washington specialty: a manufactured crisis. Some Republicans are threatening to block any funding measures, forcing a government shutdown come October.
Why? The Affordable Care Act. The deficit. The debt ceiling. Foreign aid. Take your pick. Anything will do for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and other tea party-affiliated architects of this made-for-cable crisis.
Cooler heads in the GOP leadership understand that a government shutdown would backfire politically, not to mention the ripple effects on an already weak economy. But it's increasingly clear that House Speaker John Boehner has little sway over the most conservative members of his caucus. Boehner's inability to produce a majority in the Republican-controlled House was on full display when he pulled a transportation funding bill from the floor before the summer recess.
The bill, one of the 12 needed to fund the government, pays for programs including transit and highway maintenance. It would cut current spending by $4.4 billion, consistent with the sequestration cuts that took effect earlier this year. For some hard-liners, the cuts weren't deep enough. Others said they were too much. Had the bill come to a vote, it would have been an embarrassing defeat for the speaker, much like the recent defeat of the farm bill.
What's especially confounding is that congressional Republicans could be claiming victories instead of forming a circular firing squad.
On the budget, the deficit is shrinking rapidly, declining by a third in the last year alone. Reduced government spending is a primary reason for the improved balance sheet.
On taxes, President Barack Obama endorsed lower corporate income tax rates — another major GOP goal — before leaving on his own vacation.
Yes, the president wants more spending on roads, bridges and education in return. But both parties are dissatisfied with the sequester — Democrats because of cuts in domestic programs, Republicans because of defense cuts.
That sounds like the basis for negotiations, maybe a, dare we say, bipartisan deal that address taxes, spending and long-term deficit and debt issues.
Reaching an agreement isn't easy in Washington's hyperpartisan atmosphere. But settling for another phony crisis, long on bluster and short on substance, would turn a summer incomplete into a fall failure.