Congress Has a Big, Scary To-Do List to Finish This Year

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Congress Holds Ceremony Marking 50th Anniversary Of The Civil Rights Act Of 1964
They're having so much fun!Photo: Drew Angerer/2014 Getty Images

Congress returned to the Capitol today and is forced to once again deal with all the problems it left behind a week ago before going on recess. While legislators were away, the congressional conundrums didn’t have the temerity to solve themselves — if anything, the complications grew even more intense, and elected officials have even less time to make them go away. 

Here’s a peek at Congress’s to-do list for the upcoming weeks — and all the ways the legislative body is making crossing them off harder than it needs to be. 

1. Find someone stupid enough to want to lead the House — but not so stupid that they’d burn the place down.
Finding a House Speaker didn’t used to be this hard. In an industry where everyone is supposedly in the business of amassing power, being third in line for the presidency looks pretty snazzy on a résumé. Since 2010, however, leading the ever-splintering set of fractious factions that is the Republican Party in the House has become less impressive and more like a Christopher Nolan movie about Congress: depressing, thankless, lonely, bound to end badly, and shot through a dark and moody filter.

First John Boehner decided he didn’t want the job anymore, hours after dropping the mic with a visit from the pope. Then House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy decided he couldn’t handle the job. 

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He's actually just thinking about what kind of sandwich he wants.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/2014 Getty Images

The Republican Party cast its eyes around at the eligible people remaining and began making googly eyes at Paul Ryan. A few days after the begging began, his colleagues are split between thinking he could save them or would be just as bad as Boehner. A few other representatives have eagerly raised their hand to be picked — conservative favorite Daniel Webster has been yelling “Me me me me me!” for weeks — but the Establishment has decided to pretend they don’t exist, preferring to wait awhile in case Ryan changes his mind. 

If Paul Ryan continues to say “no” to his desperate fans, it’s not clear what would happen. At least a dozen possible alternatives have been floated — all of whom would probably have a difficult time getting the requisite 218 votes. A few moderate Republicans, worried about a conservative taking the reins of the House, have been calling up Democrats about the possibility of working together to pick a “coalition” Speaker. This weekend, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters“I think in our caucus there is interest and support. There’s an openness to a bipartisan approach to this.” However, since nothing like that has ever happened before, it still seems even more unlikely than all the other unlikely options. 

Meanwhile, Boehner is stuck being the hero his party didn’t want — a role he doesn’t think he deserves to suffer through anymore. He’s promised to stay in Congress until his replacement in chosen. However, judging from his Twitter feed, the longer he’s trapped on Capitol Hill, the less he’s going to talk about politics and the more he’s going to talk about weird statues across America that look exactly like him … 

… and the good old days when he didn’t hate his job.

2. Talk to Hillary Clinton.
On Thursday, the former secretary of State is scheduled to testify in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi. House Republicans have prepared for the big day by repeatedly saying that the committee was designed to get dirt on Hillary Clinton — something that has made the committee’s chair, Trey Gowdy, increasingly angry. 

I have told my own Republican colleagues and friends, shut up talking about things that you don’t know anything about,” he told CBS on Sunday

All of the attention on the Benghazi committee and its motives has made Gowdy pretty miserable. He told Politico, “I would say in some ways these have been among the worst weeks of my life.” However, he is excited about the chance for the country — now even more attuned to the workings of his committee — to pay attention to Clinton’s testimony, which he thinks will be enlightening. “I am far from perfect, and I am not about to say that every decision I have made is the perfect decision,” he told Politico, “but I can tell you this: I am at peace with the way we’ve prepared and our motives. … I hope that is reflected on Thursday.”

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Based on past precedent, the Benghazi hearing will feature Clinton making a lot of faces like this.Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Representative Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, is not counting down the days until Thursday. He instead is looking at his watch wondering when this will all be over. “We still have been zeroed in on Hillary Clinton. There is absolutely no doubt about that, and it’s very unfortunate,” he told CBS on Sunday.

3. Don’t let the economy explode.
While the Republicans are trying to find a new leader, and Trey Gowdy is preparing his questions for Clinton, Congress is also trying to figure out how to raise the debt limit. 

If it doesn’t, the U.S. will be unable to fulfill its financial obligations, which will probably cause the country’s credit rating to fall. Wall Street will also freak out.

It will just be a bad thing in general. 

And, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Congress only has until November 3 to raise the debt ceiling. He told CNBC on Monday, “I worry every time we hit this that sometime there would be an accident, and that would be terrible.”

Boehner said shortly after his resignation announcement, “I expect that I might have a little more cooperation from some around town to try to get as much finished as possible. I don’t want to leave my successor a dirty barn. So I want to clean the barn up a little bit before the next person gets there.” Many think he might try to pass a clean debt-ceiling bill — one that doesn’t include any of the spending cuts Republicans always ask for whenever the issue of the debt limit comes up — before he leaves, instead of forcing his replacement to have the worst first day on the job ever. 

Observers on Wall Street still seem confident that the debt ceiling will be raised, although the exact way it will happen remains unclear. One policy analyst told the Los Angeles Times, “We believe the debt ceiling will be raised in November, but we are basing that on nothing more than blind faith and would remind investors who shrug at another debt ceiling ‘boy cried wolf’ charade that, at the end of the book, the wolf eats the boy.”

4. Make sure there is money to fix the roads.
On October 29, the legislation that Congress passed this summer to keep funding transportation spending will expire. Congress will either have to pass a big, ambitious infrastructure bill — which it hasn’t done in ten years — or at least extend the funding for another few months. Observers seem confident that Congress would be able to pass something that would fund infrastructure spending for … another month

5. Stop a government shutdown (again).
The bill that Congress passed to avert a government shutdown at the end of September only provides funding through December 11 — which means that once Congress solves all of the above problems, they’ll have to tackle the biggest one of all: trying to stop the government from stopping before the holidays. However, Congress is becoming old pros at this game — it had to do the same exact thing last December. And at that point, Boehner will be gone, and the new House leader will have to graduate to being his party’s favorite punching bag. 

Congressional leaders will be eager to pass an ambitious spending bill so they don’t have to replay this fight before the presidential election. However, the fights over Planned Parenthood, sequestration, and various other issues haven’t evaporated.

It’s going to be just as awful as all of the other things Congress has to do in 2015.

And it’s not even an election year yet.