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Presidential Campaign Slows Progress On Capitol Hill


In case you're concerned that all the drama around the presidential race has distracted you from paying attention to what Congress is doing, don't worry. Congress has been distracted, too. 2016 is proving to be, like election years past, short on meaty legislation and short on weeks in session as members use much of the year to campaign. Here's NPR's Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: If there's such a thing as the perfect time to demand sweeping reforms from Congress, you can safely bet that the middle of an election year is not that time.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Whose house?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Our house.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Whose house?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Our house.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Whose house?

CHANG: So you got to hand it to these protesters. They've been staging sit ins and getting arrested by the hundreds all week at the Capitol to push for campaign finance reform. But why even bother in 2016? That's what Sue Kirby is wondering. She came all the way from Salem, Mass., for this.

SUE KIRBY: We've all gotten to the point we almost don't expect them to do anything but especially this year. I mean not being willing to consider the Supreme Court nomination - they've just sat down and stopped doing their job.

CHANG: It's getting so sluggish on Capitol Hill even academics are getting bored. Sarah Binder teaches a course on Congress at George Washington University, and usually at the beginning of every class, she spends 15 minutes talking about what Congress is working on.

SARAH BINDER: This year, oh, there's so little going on. I'm two days ahead on my syllabus (laughter), all right? I'm just dying for news, and there's only so many times we can count up Republicans who are willing to have breakfast with Judge Garland for the Supreme Court.

CHANG: Lawmakers never declared bold ambitions this election year, but now they're slow-walking even modest legislative goals. Criminal justice reform keeps getting put on ice - same with emergency funding to fight the Zika virus. There's no chance Congress will vote on the Pacific Rim trade deal before the election, and Democrat Dan Kildee can't believe his colleagues are still deadlocked over what to do about lead poisoning in Flint, Mich. That's his district.

DAN KILDEE: Here we have a major crisis, a community of a hundred thousand people, and Congress can't act to provide even the basic kind of help for this community. There's no excuse for it. This is a do-nothing Congress like nothing we've seen before.

CHANG: But there seems to be plenty of time to think about other things. Last month, one House member introduced a measure that would nationally recognized magic as an art form. Kildee was not amused.

KILDEE: We've spent whole week's naming post offices, you know, which is little but ironic because it kind of feels like - what? - we have to name these post offices before the other side can vote to close them.

CHANG: Now, some lawmakers do take issue with how people are measuring their productivity this election year. Here's Republican Mo Brooks of Alabama.

MO BROOKS: It appears that you have a much different view of the word productive than I do.

CHANG: What's your view?

BROOKS: Killing bad things is very productive, and we have been very successful at killing bad things.

CHANG: Like what?

BROOKS: Like the budget.

CHANG: Yeah, about that budget - that was supposed to be one of the doable things this year because a budget deal already passed last year. But conservative House Republicans still think the spending limit set by that deal were too high, so now the budget's going nowhere.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Republicans say they've done plenty this year, like bills on North Korea sanctions and on opioid addiction. And Republican John McCain of Arizona says it's still early.

JOHN MCCAIN: We organize in January and February, and we're now in April, OK? So let's see what happens in the next few months before we start making judgments.

CHANG: But this election year, Congress is scheduled to be out much of July, all of August and pretty much all of October, too. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.