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Before the Congressional Recess: Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

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In a stunning reversal of form, in the month or so before adjourning for recess, Congress managed to pass two meaningful pieces of legislation: The Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Veterans Access Choice and Accountability Act (VA reform bill)

For a second it appeared that this "do-nothing" Congress was on to something and starting to take positive actions that might bring its approval rating with the American public out of the toilet.

Then, in the last 72 hours before recessing, the House managed to pass three meaningless bills: which flushed any emerging public good will down the toilet. The saddest part of all of this is that the House extended its session for one day from July 31 to August 1 to accomplish this lackluster feat.

The Republicans in the House could have left well enough alone and departed the Capitol with no immigration-related bill as they could not round up enough Republican-only votes to support a "mild-mannered" version of the border bill drafted by its leadership that was pending on July 31. Instead, they decided it was more important to legislate for a core constituency rather than to legislate for the country.

Legislating for a core constituency is passing a totally partisan bill that sends a message to a targeted group but has virtually no chance of implementation. Legislating for the country is passing a bipartisan bill directed at solving problems confronting the nation and its citizens.

By comparing and contrasting the content, nature of the vote, and manner in which these two steps-forward and three steps-back bills were produced, it is possible to highlight the significant difference between these two approaches to legislating and their consequences.

WIOA was the result of a bipartisan, bicameral compromise to reauthorize the existing Workforce Investment Act which had been originally authorized in 1998.

In 2013, the House passed a bill that effectively gutted the workforce program as it existed and established a single Workforce Investment Fund. The Senate passed a bill out of committee that essentially maintained the status quo and current programs with some new priorities such as focusing on dislocated youth and people with disabilities. These bills were miles apart.

In 2014, the House and Senate under the leadership of Sen. Johnny Isaakson (R-GA) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) engaged in months of pre-conferencing and created a joint product acceptable to both sides of the aisle. The compromise WIOA included provisions eliminating some existing programs, establishing improved and consistent performance accountability measures, and ensuring a stronger connection between training delivered and jobs in the marketplace for participants.

The Senate passed this compromise bill by a 95-3 vote on June 25, 2014. The House passed the bill by a vote of 415-6 on July 9. The President signed WIOA into law on July 22.

Where WIOA was on a slow track, the VA reform bill was on a fast track. An ingredient that the two pieces of legislation shared in common, however, was a bipartisan, bicameral approach to legislating.

The key actors in this instance were Sen. Bernie Sanders (Independent-NH), Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman and House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL).

Senator Sanders calls himself a socialist. Before he was elected to office, Rep. Miller was a real estate broker and deputy sheriff in his home state of Florida. His official website refers to him "as one of the staunchest conservatives in the House of Representatives."

These two might seem like an odd-couple to collaborate to put something successful together. But like Felix Unger and Oscar Madison who were winners in the theater, movie and television, these two opposites drew upon their shared commitment to our nation's veterans to produce a winning bill with lightning speed. .

Key elements of the $17 billion bill included $10 billion in funding to pay for veterans to get healthcare at private facilities and $5 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs to beef up its delivery capacity by hiring more doctors, nurses and other medical personnel.

$12 billion of the bill was characterized as emergency spending that would add to the deficit. Only $5 billion was offset by spending cuts at the Department. In spite of this "violation" of conservative deficit and budgetary control principles, the Veterans Access Choice and Affordability Act got overwhelming support from Republicans in both chambers.

On July 30, the House voted for the bill 420-5 with the opposition coming from 5 Republicans. The Senate voted for it 91-3 on July 31 with 3 Republicans in the opposition. The President signed the bill into law on August 7.

That brings us from compromise-driven legislation in the slow track and fast track to conflict-driven legislation that is off track - starting with the House's decision on July 30 by a vote of 225-201 to authorize a lawsuit against President Obama because of his alleged misuse of executive power. No Democrats supported the measure and five conservative Republicans voted against it.

Before and after the vote, various sources reported that this bill was brought forward to prevent any impeachment actions against the President in the off-year elections for decisions such as deferring implementation of various aspects of the Affordable Care Act (The specific focus of the lawsuit is on delaying the employer mandate for insurance coverage.) and deportation of illegal immigrants who came here as young children.

Writing for The Hill, Christina Marcos commented, "Rather than seeking to impeach Obama, however, GOP leaders in the House rallied around the lawsuit as a way of bottling up grassroots anger that would not backfire on Republicans in an election year."

The GOP leaders may have used the lawsuit to "bottle up grass roots" anger on the impeachment issue on July 30. They were not as successful on July 31 in bottling up anger among the conservative Republican House members themselves on the next issue they were to address.

That was the border security bill - or what to do about the wave of children and minors who have come into the United States illegally from the Central America over the past several months. House Speaker John Boehner and his team had advanced a limited scope border bill of $659 million to speed up deportation of these individuals with the expectation that they would get enough Republican votes to pass it.

They were wrong. As reported in the Washington Post, "...a revolt by hard-liners - inspired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) - led Boehner to pull the bill in the face of certain defeat."

Republican moderates were apoplectic. They stormed the leadership on the House floor and demanded a vote.

After conferring in the Capitol basement, the GOP leaders decided to reconvene on Friday, August 1 to vote on something - although they were not certain exactly what. And, the rest is history.

On August 1, the House got its vote on the border and immigration. In fact, it got two of them.

Earlier in the day, the members voted 223-189 to approve $694 million in additional funding for federal agencies to deal with the recent onslaught of young immigrants. Four Republicans voted against and 1 Democrat voted for the bill.

The bill modified a 2008 anti-trafficking law to make it easier to deport those who have come here recently from Central America. It also gave border-state governors broader authority to call out the National Guard and $35 million to enhance the security along their borders.

Vote number two came in the evening as the members passed a bill to "curtail the Obama administration program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) that provides protections to about 500,000 immigrants who were brought to the country as children." The vote on this bill was 216-192 with 11 Republicans voting against it and four Democrats voting for it.

Three steps back: The Obama lawsuit bill. The Central American deportation bill. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals bill. What can be learned from them?

We can learn for whom the House Republican members were legislating as their core constituency. One would expect that, it would be residents of their own districts. And, it was to an extent - at least for the Tea Party supporters in those districts.

These last three votes - most especially the last two - , however, demonstrate clearly that the conservative Tea Party members in the House have or are becoming a core constituency of the House Republicans. They are holding sway and setting the agenda on certain sensitive issues such as immigration and impeachment.

That's not just our opinion. It's also that of Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) who according to Ed O'Keefe and Paul Kane, "...described the Retreat by Boehner as one of the highlights of her career, because the leadership was forced to capitulate to conservative demands."

O'Keefe and Kane quote Bachmann as stating, "Steve (Rep. Steve King, R-IA) laid it out, and in less than two hours, we worked it out....Steve helped to completely gut this bill."

The United States Congress, as we know it today, with its dual system of representation was born out of a Great Compromise reached at the Constitutional Convention in July of 1787. That compromise helped to create an institution that for most of its two hundred plus years has earned and deserved the respect of most American citizens.

That respect has eroded. A new NBC News and Marist College poll that came out in early August showed that almost three quarters of those surveyed described the Congress as "somewhat" to "very" unproductive.

In July 2014, we saw two examples of Congress compromising and being productive. Unfortunately, we also saw three examples of Congress in conflict and being counter-productive.

For America to work, we need a Congress that works. We get that when Congress takes more steps forward than it does back.

We needed that before this recess and we will need it even more so after. We need it not for the image of the institution but for the sake of the American people and the American economy. (We'll have more to say on this in a second blog to be posted later this month.)

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