Congress left town this weekend for their Memorial Day recess, with their final mini-drama the failure to reauthorize the National Security Agency's bulk collection of Americans' phone records that began as part of the Patriot Act.
The House passed a bill called the USA Freedom Act (not showing a lot of creativity there) which would keep the records in the phone companies' hands but allow extensive searching by the government, but the bill failed to pass the Senate.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tried to get an extension of the Patriot Act for two months, then he tried to get an extension for a week, then four days, then two days, but he couldn't break through opposition from his fellow Kentucky Republican Sen.CartoonDavies' latest cartoon: HUD or huh?CommentSubmit your letterReader essaysGet published in Newsday
Rand Paul, who saw the opportunity to give his presidential campaign some much-needed publicity with a dramatic stand against government spying. So now McConnell will try a last-ditch attempt to pass a renewal of the program this coming Sunday, the day it expires.
Remember when Republicans were going to "show they can govern"?
That's what everyone said they'd have to do when they took control of both houses of Congress last November. The day after Election Day 2014, McConnell and Speaker of the House John Boehner wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which they promised a new beginning for Congress, one in which legislation of vital importance would bloom like a glorious field of sunflowers. "The skeptics say nothing will be accomplished in the next two years," they wrote. "As elected servants of the people, we will make it our job to prove the skeptics wrong." At long last, Congress would Get Things Done.
Alas, things are not quite getting done. There have been a few pieces of meaningful legislation passed this year, perhaps most notably the end of the absurdity that was the Medicare "doc fix," but Congress seems no less likely to devolve into infighting and gridlock than it did when Democrats held one house. Forget about forging "grand bargains" and taking on complex challenges like tax reform - Congressional Republicans can barely manage to keep the existing programs that are popular with their base running.
With a June 1 deadline approaching, the NSA has already begun preparations to wind down the bulk collection program, despite Republican insistence that its end will leave America terribly vulnerable to terrorists.
My theory all along has been that Republicans don't actually need to "show they can govern" or "get things done"; they just need to avoid doing too much harm to their eventual presidential nominee.
If you're a Republican member of Congress, the next year and a half may contain a substantive issue to consider here or there, but it's really about waiting for January 2017, when they hope to get a Republican president and keep both houses of Congress. At that point, it would be a legislative smorgasbord, with no conservative need going unmet. Tax cuts for the wealthy, regulatory rollbacks, restrictions on abortion rights, slashing programs for the poor, undoing Obamacare, renaming California as "Reaganfornia" - you name it, they'll be able to do it.
And while in the meantime Congress can't do much to help a Republican president get elected, they can harm that effort by seeming too irresponsible, too obstructionist, too downright crazy to be given the ability to pass whatever legislation they want. So their optimal strategy is to stay as quiet as possible: Just keep things going and don't stage any dramatic confrontations that threaten to shut down the government or make the country default on its debt. The less Congress is in the headlines, the better it is for the eventual GOP nominee.
So far, the strategy seems to be working fairly well. The Republican presidential candidates have been busy talking about whether they would have invaded Iraq in 2003 and which will be most super-duper-tough on ISIS, but they haven't had to answer for what their comrades in Congress are doing - which is fine with them.
I don't know whether McConnell will be able to maneuver his colleagues into passing the bulk collection bill on Sunday when the Senate returns for a last-ditch attempt to keep the program from expiring (and it isn't as though they couldn't revive it even if it expired temporarily). But either way, this is a reminder that all that high-minded talk about how Republicans in Congress needed to show they could govern was vastly overblown. If they get a Republican president next year, they'll govern - oh boy, will they ever govern.
Most Americans won't like what it produces, but it'll be "governing" with a vengeance. Between now and then, though, they can continue to stumble around without doing themselves all that much political harm.
Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for The American Prospect.