Washington (CNN) - This 111th Congress will and should be remembered for the messy fights it produced and the sweeping bills it passed, from health care reform to the stimulus bill.
But when it came to some of the day-in, day-out business of governing, this Congress showed a near addiction to procrastination.
In this week's American Sauce, we count how many times the 111th punted on major issues, kicking decisions down the road for a few months and sometimes just a few days and keeping millions of people, who relied on those decisions, in limbo. Click to listen to the podcast here:
Or keep reading to see our extensive list of the 111th's biggest punts.
For football fans, it is hard to resist a reference to the Dallas Cowboys or the entire NFC West.
This Congress has punted dozens of times on major decisions. By this, we mean, Congress has passed temporary "band-aid" extensions, put off tackling the tougher, underlying issues and nonetheless still missed its own deadlines.
The list of issues which have been living in this Congressional limbo is immense. To list a few: unemployment benefits, Medicare doctors' pay, dozens of key business tax credits, the national flood insurance program and funding for government to keep running.
During the 111th, Congressional debate, partisan tactics and indecision led to significant real-world disruption:
- Extended unemployment benefits expired four times in the last year.
- Medicare told doctors to hold off on asking for payment three times, buying time for Congress to act.
- 2000 workers were furloughed and 41 projects were put on hold for two days in March at the Department of Transportation as regular funding expired.
- The National Flood Insurance Program expired, also for a few days in March, blocking any new flood insurance policies and forcing homeowners with pending deals to wait for Congress to renew the program before sales could proceed.
- Congress funded seven short-term funding mechanisms or continuing resolutions, to keep government running. Those often became law within a day of money running out.
Longtime Congressional watchers may correctly point out that short-term extensions and continuing resolutions are a tradition at the Capitol. And that deadlines (and lawmakers' desire to go home for holiday breaks), in fact, are among the only absolute motivators in Washington.
But the 111th Congress took this practice to a rare level.
To depict this, we've broken down the punts on just three main issues: unemployment, Medicare and overall government funding.
Unemployment Benefit Extensions
We are currently in uncharted territory on the length of unemployment benefits, with a record maximum of 99 weeks in the worst-hit states. At some point, Congress will decide to lower that figure. But in the meanwhile, lawmakers have repeatedly addressed the issue only after benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans have expired.
Summary: Unemployment benefits expired four times in the 111th Congress.
Shortest Extension: One month. March 1 – April 6, 2010.
Dec. 19, 2009 – Congress passes two-month unemployment extension through Feb. 28.
March 1, 2010 – Unemployment extensions EXPIRE.
March 2, 2010 – Congress passes one-month unemployment extension through April 5.
April 6, 2010 – Unemployment extensions EXPIRE.
(Note: Congress went on Spring Break during this time) April 15, 2010 – Congress passes two-month extension through June 2.
June 2, 2010 – Unemployment extensions EXPIRE.
(Note: Congress went on July break during this time.) July 22, 2010 – Congress passes unemployment extension through Nov. 30.
Nov. 30, 2010 – Unemployment extensions EXPIRE.
Dec. 16, 2010 – Congress passes extension of unemployment through the end of 2011.
The formula for how Medicare pays doctors is out of date. In 1997 Congress pegged Medicare doctors' pay to growth in the economy in an attempt to keep costs down. But health care costs have far outpaced the growth in the economy, leaving a pay formula that underestimates doctors' costs and would result in dramatic pay cuts for them year after year. Thus, Congress typically passes a one-year "doc fix", a patch that pays billions of dollars to ensure that Medicare doctors do not see a pay cut. This year, however, that one "doc fix" became a half-dozen bandaids.
Summary: Medicare doctors came within days, sometimes within hours, of pay cuts six times in the 111th Congress. Five of those instances were in the last year.
Shortest Extensions: One month. March 1 – April 1, 2010 and Nov. 30 – Dec. 31, 2010.
Dec. 16, 2009 – Congress passes two-month "doc fix" for Jan. 1 – Feb. 28, 2010.
March 1, 2010 – Doc fix EXPIRES. Medicare asks doctors to withhold all claims for ten business days, a way to buy time in hopes of avoiding a pay cut.
March 2, 2010 – Congress passes one-month "doc fix" for March 1 – April 1.
April 1, 2010 – Doc fix EXPIRES. Medicare asks doctors to hold claims for ten working days.
April 15, 2010 – Congress passes two-month "doc fix" for April 1 – June 1.
June 1, 2010 – Doc fix EXPIRES. Medicare asks doctors to hold claims ten days.
June 24, 2010 – Congress passes six-month "doc fix" for June 1 – Dec. 1.
Nov. 29, 2010 – Congress passes one-month "doc fix" through Dec. 31.
Dec. 9, 2010 – Congress passes one-year "doc fix" through 2011.
In the textbooks, the federal government funds its operations though appropriations bills which work their way through the committee process and contain funding by agency and program. In reality, Congress frequently does not finish one or all of those bills and decides, annually, to pass a continuing resolution (CR) which funds government at previous spending levels. This is common, usually once or twice a year. The 111th Congress, in contrast, has passed seven CRs, including one as short as three-days long.
This is, in part, due to the increased focus on reducing government spending. But it should be pointed out that while CRs usually do not increase spending, they also did not decrease it this Congress. These CRs punted the longterm spending decisions down the road.
Summary: The 111th Congress passed seven short-term funding bills, or continuing resolutions, to keep government running.
Shortest Extension: Three days. Dec. 18 – Dec. 21, 2010.
March 6, 2009 – Congress passes CR through March 11, 2009.
March 11, 2009 – Congress passes an Omnibus appropriations bill, funding government though Sept. 30, 2009.
Oct 1, 2009 – Congress passes CR through Oct. 29, 2009.
Oct. 29, 2009 – Congress passes CR through Dec. 18, 2009.
Dec. 2009 – Throughout the month Congress completed its appropriations bills, funding government through Sept. 30, 2010.
Sept. 30, 2010 – Congress passes CR through Dec. 3, 2010.
Dec. 3, 2010 – Congress passes CR through Dec. 18, 2010.
Dec. 17, 2010 – Congress passes CR through Dec. 21, 2010.
Dec. 21, 2010 – Congress passes CR through March 4, 2010.
The tough decisions are stacking up. And Congress is choosing not to decide.
U.S. lawmakers did pass a major tax cut and unemployment extension in December. But those were just longer punts. The Bush Tax Cuts are set to expire, again, in 2012. A new tax cut, the 2% cut in payroll tax, will expire in 2011. Medicare doctors are due for another pay cut at the end of 2011. And the federal government will shut down March 4, 2010 unless Congress passes an actual appropriations bill or, more likely, a broad continuing resolution to keep money flowing.
The dynamics behind this are numerous and complex, from the tactical partisan game at the Capitol, to the structure of the Senate (where Sen. Jim Bunning had the ability to single-handedly delay extensions in March).
But it is the end result that matters: the annual Congressional extension and the occasional "will they finish by the deadline?" musings have now become much more than the fall-back, worst-case motivational tool.
Punting, or putting off the tough decisions, is becoming Congress' default mechanism.
Listen to our podcast on Congressional punting here.