Imagine if you ran a business but you didn't tell your customers exactly what they would be charged for your products or services until nearly the end of the year. Well, you don't have to work your imagination too hard because that's essentially what Congress just did. In one of their last actions before adjournment on Tuesday, Senators approved the extension of some 50 temporary tax breaks that President Barack Obama is expected to sign into law.
The decision represents neither a big breakthrough nor a new dilemma — Congress has been unable to set a long-term course on these tax breaks for many years — but the last-minute nature of the extension's passage was particularly egregious this time around. The House and Senate could not bring themselves to apply the rules to 2015, so the basic shortcoming of such policymaking — the inability for actual U.S. non-imaginary businesses to make long-term financial plans related to federal tax policy — remains just as big a problem for the nation, reducing prospects for sustained economic growth.
This is just one small reason why Americans will not miss the dysfunctional, do-nothing, bloviating mess that was the 113th Congress. The outgoing Senate couldn't even muster enough reasonableness to approve such no-brainers as the terrorism risk insurance program that protects from astronomical private insurance costs certain enterprises that might be especially vulnerable to attack, like the Super Bowl or a major construction project. It's a program that has never cost the government any actual payouts, incidentally.
Or here's an especially embarrassing failure: The Senate left town without approving legislation aimed at preventing veterans from committing suicide by, among other things, encouraging psychiatrists to work for the VA by retiring their student loans. U.S. Sen. Tom "Dr. No" Coburn blocked it. Why? He said it was too expensive at $22 million over five years. That's $4.4 million per year. The Pentagon likely spends more money on shoe polish.
And these aren't even the worst actions the outgoing Congress has taken in the past week. The greater damage was likely wrought by the omnibus budget bill that contained such gems as a rollback of Dodd-Frank protections that will now give big banks a greater opportunity to invest in risky derivatives, the kind of investments that helped bring the country to the brink of economic ruin just over six years ago. Or maybe it was this classic moment — last year's government shutdown over pointless wrangling related to the funding of Obamacare, one of the true low-lights of the 113th's term in office.
By some standards, the lame duck session might have been the 113th's shining moment because some work actually got done. Democrats are still thanking Sen. Ted Cruz for that since it was his and fellow Senator Mike Lee's ill-advised objection to a weekend adjournment last Friday that allowed the Senate to move forward with about two dozen executive appointments. Mr. Cruz has since apologized to his fellow Republicans — but only for causing them to work over the weekend, not for engaging in a pointless political maneuver that never had a chance of reversing President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration.
Of course, it could be that the American people will look back fondly at those days of low expectations but high rhetoric in the 113th if the Republicans make a mess of things in the 114th. The midterm elections gave the Grand Old Party a stronger hold on the House and control of the Senate. So what does the next Senate majority leader want to accomplish with his newfound power on Day One? Reduce unemployment and create jobs? Fix the nation's failing public infrastructure? Embrace much-needed tax reform that might recapture corporate investments now stuck overseas? No, Sen. Mitch McConnell said this week his first action will be to bring up legislation to force the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Canada-to-Texas project that creates fewer than 50 permanent jobs, worsens the already-costly effects of climate change and won't even lower U.S. gasoline prices, perhaps even raising them in some places.
That's the biggest priority of the Republican-controlled Congress? Enabling dirty tar sands oil to be produced and shipped to places like China by means of a pipeline the exact route of which remains uncertain because it's being litigated in Nebraska? If this is what the future holds, two years of inaction might look pretty appealing.