"I think that's unfortunate because there are some real problems confronting our country and we have an ability as a Congress to address them responsibly, and we aren't doing it," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said

"I think that's unfortunate because there are some real problems confronting our country and we have an ability as a Congress to address them responsibly, and we aren't doing it," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Time Is Running Out for Real Action in Congress

Congress will start working on the National Defense Authorization Act next month, but real intelligence reform is unlikely before midterm elections. By Billy House

Lawmakers are gone from Washington for their two-week spring break, having packed with them the chances for big-ticket legislation through the rest of the year.

Already destined to be one of the least productive Congresses in recent decades, lawmakers seem to have no sense of urgency for anything, expect perhaps the midterm election.

"Actually, I think that started in January," complained Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York, the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee.

And House Democrats aren't the only ones suggesting that. "You look ahead, there's not much going on," one senior House GOP aide said.

In fact, as early as February, Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas drew the ire of his party's leaders with his candid acknowledgment—after the House passed the debt-ceiling bill—that leaders were already declaring the legislative decks essentially cleared to allow plenty of time to campaign.

"That's what our leadership said; if we get past this one [vote], we're done until the election," Huelskamp said at the time.

To some, there might appear to still be plenty of legislative working days left. After all, when House members return to the Capitol on April 28, their calendars will officially show 54 scheduled working days before Oct. 2, when they finally break for good until the November election.

But 22 of those "working" days are, in reality, not entire days, because they count late-convening arrive-into-town days and early-adjourning get-out-of-town days.

Moreover, the rest of the time consists largely of three-day weeks with some breaks in-between (such as the entire month of August). The Senate has scheduled things similarly, although details after September have not yet been released.

Despite all that, there may still be enough time remaining before November to do some legislating. But the list of items already being taken off the board continues to grow, with most deemed too thorny for this Congress to complete until after the election.

For instance, neither the House nor the Senate will move forward this year on an overhaul of the nation's tax code—despite promises at the start of the congressional session from House Speaker John Boehner and others that it was a No. 1 priority, and even as dozens of so-called tax extenders remain in limbo since expiring Dec. 31. There also is little likelihood that any comprehensive immigration-reform package will be agreed upon and passed by both chambers, even if some lawmakers hold out hope.

But don't expect complete silence.

There will certainly be a lot of time and attention paid to one-chamber messaging bills in the stretch before midterm elections. House Republicans have already pushed forward their own budget plan for 2015, even though spending levels were already agreed upon in the two-year budget deal.

Republicans also will emphasize their continued focus on an agenda for jobs and growth and will continue efforts to "protect the American people from the president's health care law," Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. GOP leaders say they will unveil an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, though they stop short of saying they will vote on it.

"We are about proposing real health care reform that will be patient-centered," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said before lawmakers left for the break last week. "Our committee chairmen are working on the issues in terms of the kind of reform we want."

For their part, Democrats in both chambers are likely to focus on minimum-wage legislation.

Of course, there are also some important issues that Congress must address.

First in line for attention when lawmakers return is the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, which will probably see action the week before Memorial Day. Work on that bill is anticipated to be done in conjunction with other measures, such as the defense appropriations bill and the National Security Agency reform bill, though intelligence reform before the election is not a given.

Lawmakers also will face appropriations bills before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Because of the prearranged funding levels in the budget agreement, that might seem easily done. But recent history shows Congress has had difficulty meeting deadlines and tends to favor short-term approaches. Another large omnibus bill that ties several spending measures together cannot be ruled out.

Congress also will have to do something to put more money into the Highway Trust Fund for road and related construction projects by the end of summer, or those funds might be depleted. And a decision is due on Sept. 30 on whether to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, recharter it with reforms or even wind-down legislation, or simply let it expire. The bank supports loans to overseas companies to help them buy U.S. exports, and many conservatives are signaling another battle to block its charter.

One senior House GOP aide said the reality is that there "is not much going on" beyond campaigning. He also predicted that little can really be achieved by Election Day to help this Congress turn around its image as one of the least productive in recent history. According to the official Résumé of Congressional Activity, a total of 65 public bills (the term for measures with broad impact) were enacted into law in the first session of this two-year Congress over a period from Jan. 3, 2013, to Jan. 3, 2014. That was the lowest one-year output for Congress since at least 1947, the record shows.

"I think that's unfortunate," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland said, "because there are some real problems confronting our country and we have an ability as a Congress to address them responsibly, and we aren't doing it."