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Paul Ryan

On Capitol Hill, dysfunction reigns and GOP leaders fall short

In an election year featuring loud demands for change, Congress and its Republican leaders have delivered more of the same.

More of the partisanship and dysfunction that have kept congressional approval ratings at 20 percent or below for years. More of the inability to accomplish even the most basic work, the must-pass spending bills to keep the government running. More failure to legislate on pressing issues like guns, or even respond to a public health emergency, the Zika virus.

As lawmakers headed out of Washington for a seven-week summer recess, members of both parties expressed frustration with the state of affairs. And for House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, both relatively new to their jobs, Congress' record this year falls short of the Republican leaders' own goals while offering more evidence for Donald Trump's claim that "Washington is broken."

"A lot of us came here to govern, to do our jobs," said Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a moderate Republican in the House. "And it seems that the default position is to do nothing."

To be sure, Congress can claim some accomplishments this year, including a rescue package for Puerto Rico, labeling requirements for genetically modified food, and legislation to tackle the opioid epidemic, although Democrats say the anti-drug bill won't do anything because it lacks funding.

Ryan delivered on a promise to roll out a House GOP agenda meant to show how Republicans would govern on issues including the economy, taxes and national security, though the plans tend to be vague and aren't backed up by actual legislation. Congress acted this week to renew the Federal Aviation Administration.

But Congress' annual appropriations process of passing the 12 annual spending bills that are needed to pay for agency budgets has gone off the rails amid a variety of disputes, pointing to the likelihood of a sprawling catch-all spending bill by year's end, an outcome deplored by all sides. Getting the appropriations process back up and running was McConnell's No. 1 goal when he took over as leader last year, and a top aim for Ryan.

Instead, amid opposition from conservatives in the House, Ryan, a former Budget Committee chairman, wasn't even able to pass a budget, the non-binding spending blueprint that serves as a guide for the appropriations process.

President Barack Obama's funding request to combat the deadly Zika virus stalled in a partisan squabble, and no action was taken on guns as a conservative backlash forced Ryan to pull back even a modest measure supported by the NRA.

Democrats were predictably critical of the inaction, while Republicans blamed the Democrats, in more evidence that the one thing both parties in Congress can agree on is their mutual scorn.

"Leaving for seven weeks with that unfinished business, it is stunning," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Friday. "I don't know what they have to be proud of, I really don't. And I feel sad for the country."

Ryan offered a more upbeat assessment when asked about his record, saying, "I think we're doing fine."

"Look, it's divided government," Ryan said. "It's not easy to get things done when you don't have a lot of cooperation from the other party."

Ryan went on to cite accomplishments including education and transportation bills that passed last year, the opioids bill, and mental health legislation that's awaiting action by the Senate.

But Ryan has had to trim back his pledge to run the House in a more open fashion than his predecessor, John Boehner of Ohio, who was pushed out last fall in a conservative revolt. After a Democratic gay-rights measure caused havoc on the House floor, Ryan announced that he would limit amendments on spending bills, contrary to earlier promises.

And though many conservatives continue to speak highly of Ryan, who unlike Boehner has made concerted efforts to keep open lines of communication with them, some are now growing restive. In the latest sign that their trouble-making tendencies have not subsided, they are working to force a floor vote to impeach the IRS commissioner, a move Ryan has been cool to.

"Members find him to be much more personable, much more communicative, much more willing to listen than Speaker Boehner, who seemed to have no willingness to listen," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La. "But we're a little frustrated we're not seeing significant difference in outcomes."

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