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Is Congress in recess or AWOL?

By
Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has has put House members on a 24-hour alert to return from recess if summoned to consider new legislation. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has has put House members on a 24-hour alert to return from recess if summoned to consider new legislation. Photo by Bonnie Cash/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 4 (UPI) -- The House of Representatives is in recess until Sept. 20. The Senate plans to return Sept. 10. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, has put House members on a 24-hour alert to return if summoned to consider new legislation, possibly the infrastructure bill making its way through the upper chamber.

Members of Congress are entitled to time off for holidays and relaxation, meeting with constituents, official travel and considering other matters pertaining to their districts. The only exception for recesses, according to the binding 1970 legislation, is "war." And if Congress were doing its job, then electors would not deny members time off.

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But is Congress doing its job? One, of course, can argue that many times in the past, Congress was not doing its jobs. In 1948, Harry Truman won re-election in part by discrediting what he called the "Do-Nothing" 80th Republican-held Congress. Yet, today in terms of public opinion, Congress is badly failing.

According to Gallup, over the past 10 years, Congress' low point was 9% approval in November 2013, and its high point was in March, 36%, due to optimism over the change of party control in both chambers and the arrival of a new administration. The current approval rating is 26%, and the trajectory is downward. And while not at war, the nation is certainly awash in crises.

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With eviction legislation expiring, renters will be forced to leave. While landlords, who in many cases did not receive rent for the past year, are free to find new clients. That may take time. And for the evicted, that will contribute to the homeless problems. And where was Congress?

The COVID-19 Delta variant appears to be returning with a vengeance. While nearly half the population remains unvaccinated, and there is confusion and lack of consensus over wearing masks, what is Congress doing to cope with this pandemic? Not much.

Even if the infrastructure bill passes the Senate, the House will not deliberate on it until the fall. The reconciliation bill is subject to major debate, as well as powerful dissent between the parties and among Democrats, especially in the progressive wing who argue that not enough has been done for the social infrastructure. Meanwhile, international politics are not crisis-free.

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The pandemic is raging in much of the less-developed world. An armed drone, presumably Iranian, attacked an Israeli-owned ship in the Persian Gulf, killing one person. Ebrahim Raisi, considered a hard-liner, will assume Iran's presidency, adding to uncertainty of what might happen next. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's meeting last week with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi was not productive and indeed combative. Beijing warned the British government about sailing its warships into the Chinese seas. And some 240-300 new missile silos were detected under construction in China.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a worrying 5,000-word essay on Ukraine, claiming that Ukrainians and Russians were one people. Some regard this as a prelude to an opportunistic and aggressive move in the region. And there is no sign Moscow is reversing course on its cyber espionage and intrusion into U.S. networks.

From the White House perspective, while it would be hard to overload it with additional crises or problems, perhaps with Congress out of town, that might grant a bit of relief-- except no doubt the president will be on the phone with members cajoling, convincing or coercing them to support his legislation.

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But to compound the workload, the Senate will have left town failing to confirm literally hundreds of nominees to important posts in the executive branch and embassies, where the absence of so many ambassadors are causing allies, friends and others to question American commitment. That has also put further pressure on the secretary of state to travel as a de facto ambassador to represent the United States -- a stopgap at best for the lack of ambassadorial representation.

What does this mean? Do we really have a serious government when it is AWOL at serious times? Given the low approval ratings, some Americans may conclude that even if business is not being done, that condition is no different from when Congress is in session. So perhaps having Congress on a long break is not a bad solution.

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That reaction alone should alarm Americans. But will it cause Congress to act? That answer will drive ratings even lower.Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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