Long is the list of problems Congress has addressed with short-term answers.
When senators left town early Saturday after approving a brief extension of the nation’s highway and transit aid, they were following a well-worn path. If a program is about to expire and the two sides are stymied over what to do, Congress often keeps the program alive temporarily and revisits the problem later.
The two-month rescue of the highway trust fund is Congress’ 33rd short-term patch of that program since 2008, the Transportation Department says. Lawmakers have approved another 101 measures temporarily keeping federal agencies open since it last completed all its spending bills on time in 1997, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Lawmakers have also used short extensions to address expiring tax breaks, avoid federal defaults and keep agriculture and other programs from grinding to a halt, frustrating government agencies craving stability.
“If we were a company, we’d be bankrupt,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.
Lawmakers failed to resolve another dispute — the fate of the nation’s domestic surveillance program — with a short-term fix.
Backed by President Barack Obama, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation last week phasing out the National Security Agency’s collection and storage of Americans’ telephone records. Early Saturday, senators blocked that bill and other short-term extensions, and plan to return May 31 to address the issue.
Without congressional action, laws authorizing that and two other surveillance programs would expire at midnight May 31, which officials say would hurt intelligence gathering.
The fallback, short-term strategy has been used by both parties and draws plenty of critics, who say it lets lawmakers postpone making uncomfortable choices. They cite that inaction as a reason why Congress’ popularity remains abysmal: In a poll this month by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, just 22 percent approve of the job congressional leaders are doing.
“Members find it easier to put off decisions rather than make decisions,” said Thomas Schatz, president of the conservative-leaning Citizens Against Government Waste. “There are no consequences for failing to act.”
Leaders argue that while no one prefers short-term legislation, it buys time to seek longer-term solutions while keeping popular programs afloat.
“Some of this is hard. And particularly on the money side,” No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas said in explaining why Congress resorts to short-term fixes, frequently due to disputes over how to pay for programs.
The highway bill is a good example. The government’s ability to spend money from the highway trust fund expires May 31. There is bipartisan support for a long-term extension of the highway program, but little agreement over how to pay for it.
The highway trust fund is financed chiefly by federal taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel that have not been increased since 1993 under President Bill Clinton. A few lawmakers would raise that tax, while other proposals include collecting more taxes from American companies doing business abroad.
An extension through July “was not our preferred path forward,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said last week as his chamber approved the bill. But he said it would meet “an immediate, critical need” of keeping road projects going into the summer and preventing layoffs.
Still, the two-month extension was an easy target for others, who said state and local governments need the certainty of long-term financing to build and plan road projects.
“What can you build in 60 days? Well, you can fill a pothole,” said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois.
In a noteworthy departure from its pattern of temporary fixes, Congress voted overwhelmingly in April to resolve one nagging problem and permanently change how Medicare reimburses doctors.
Lawmakers had voted 17 times since 2003 to temporarily block a 1997 law that would have forced cuts in doctors’ Medicare fees, reductions that threatened to make it harder for elderly Medicare recipients to find medical care.
Tired of the relentless pressure to prevent the cuts, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., struck a compromise revamping the payment system, with most of the 10-year, $214 billion costs coming from increased federal borrowing.
Congress’ recent history of relying on short-term solutions to problems includes:
—Frequent renewal of expiring tax breaks. More than 50 of them, including the research and development credit for businesses, lapsed in January 2014. Congress renewed them retroactively for 2014 last December, allowing them to be claimed in returns filed in 2015 but perpetuating problem for next year’s filers.
—Last December, lawmakers enacted a giant bill financing most of government through September. They only funded the Homeland Security Department through February, with Republicans hoping to use that as leverage to force Obama to relent on liberalized immigration restrictions. The GOP-run Congress narrowly averted shutting down that agency when Obama stood firm.
—Congress has voted 14 times since 2002 to temporarily renew the government’s ability to borrow money. The most contentious fight was in 2011, which ended only when the two sides agreed to multiyear spending cuts.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Joan Lowy and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
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