Dysfunction Junction


By Jane Calderwood
Centerlines Weekly Update, July 27, 2011
Perhaps it is a sign of age, or maybe it’s the notorious D.C. summer heat, but watching the House and Senate, something I’ve been doing for over a quarter of a century, I get the urge to lock them all up in a room – perhaps that nice auditorium they built in the Capitol Visitors Center – and make them watch 1975’s School House Rock.

I'm just a bill.
Yes, I'm only a bill.
And I'm sitting here on Capitol Hill.

Yes, I said School House Rock. I’d start them off with “I’m Just a Bill” because when it comes to the FAA reauthorization, I think they need a bit of a reminder about how the system was designed to work. Even more so this week with 4,000 FAA workers furloughed, the aviation trust fund losing an estimated $200 million a week in uncollected taxes and the airlines reaping $25 million a day by taking advantage of the lapse in taxes to raise fares.  But I digress.

And I'll sit here and wait
While a few key Congressmen discuss and debate
Whether they should let me be a law.

Way back in 2007 (four years, more than 1,400 days ago, not that we’re counting) Congress let the last FAA reauthorization expire. Since that time two Congress’ have passed legislation but failed to get it to the president’s desk. And, we’ve had 20 extensions of FAA’s operating authority – five alone this fiscal year. And yet, we find ourselves today in a situation where the FAA doesn’t even have the authority to operate! Given all the practice Congress has had with FAA extensions, you wouldn’t think this should be all that problematic.

But how I hope and I pray that I will,
But today I am still just a bill.

And, it’s not just the FAA that’s got problems. We’re just two months away from the beginning of the fiscal year (Oct. 1) and Congress has yet to complete work on any of the 12 annual appropriations bills (this has a familiar ring to it). And the debt ceiling needs to be lifted, yet we are no further ahead on that front than we were when former Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowels sent up their deficit commission report last December. Since then, we’ve had Vice President Joe Biden’s two month effort working with members of both chambers to reach agreement; the Gang of Six (then five when Sen. Coburn, R-Okla., dropped out, now back to six as of last week); a joint effort by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); and one-on-one negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

All these reports, commissions, plans and meetings haven’t produced anything useful to date – more people have walked out of these meeting than ever walked out of any junior high dance.  The only thing they’ve managed to accomplish, to date, is to make the rest of the world sit back and scratch their heads at our antics and give the economic types indigestion as they seriously question the credit worthiness of the U.S. government.

White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley summed it up rather succulently this Sunday in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press when he noted that while Americans did vote last November for divided government, they “did not vote for dysfunctional government.”

On second thought, maybe I should make Congress watch “Three Ring Circus” which is, unfortunately, exactly what it feels like in Washington these days.

Talkin' about the government and how it's arranged,
Divided in three like a circus.
Ring one, Executive,
Two is Legislative, that's Congress.
Ring three, Judiciary.
See it's kind of like my circus, circus.

(“I’m Just a Bill” music and lyrics by Dave Frishberg)

(Three Ring Circus music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens)