Congressional inaction is spurring states and big-city mayors to try to fill the national power vacuum by going ahead with their own minimum-wage measures, tax increases, and other initiatives designed to legislate where Congress won’t.
I felt a brief surge of hope about Congress a few weeks ago. It was returning from Easter recess, and Capitol Hill was filled with talk about immigration reform, a minimum-wage bill, a spending bill to keep the government operating, and maybe even funding for transportation infrastructure. But, as I said, it was brief.
That’s because the talk turned out to be just that. Immigration reform appears headed nowhere. Likewise, tax reform and budgetary discipline. The minimum-wage increase died in the Senate. Shoring up the Highway Trust Fund, which could go bankrupt at the end of the summer, requires either massive new spending or a hefty rise in the gasoline tax — and Congress, of course, is inclined to do neither. The one step it appears ready to take is to approve a short-term spending bill, and that’s only because no one in either party wants to risk the public outrage that would attend a government shutdown right before an election.
Which is part of the problem. With this year’s congressional elections fast approaching, neither party wants to force its members into tough votes. In fact, neither party even wants to appear to be working with the other one. Republicans in the House talk about Benghazi, boosting charter schools, and Obamacare, and pass bills that have no chance of becoming law. In the Senate, Democrats push an extension of jobless benefits, try to make political hay out of the Republicans’ rejection of the minimum wage, and show little interest in moving bills through to enactment. Listening to them separately, it’s hard to imagine that they inhabit the same country.