WASHINGTON – Ask Todd County dairy farmer Pat Lunemann what gridlock in Congress means to him and he’ll talk about how much he wants a functioning immigration law that would let him hire a steady workforce to care for his cattle.
Or listen to Ron Lowry, who owns a manufacturing company in Blaine. He never knows how much money to spend every year on employees or new equipment, because Congress usually waits until mid-December to decide the fate of certain business tax breaks.
Or Chippewa County highway engineer Steve Kubista, who anxiously just approved a new road project that should be 80 percent funded by the federal government. But if the federal Highway Trust Fund goes broke in four weeks, there is no telling how the tiny county will cover this — and future — costs.
Political paralysis on Capitol Hill has gripped Washington so frequently over the past five years that across Minnesota and the nation it has become an unwelcome and often maddening fact of life. Starting in 2011, the last two congresses were among the least productive in U.S. history, passing just over 400 pieces of legislation in four years. About a fourth of those bills were merely ceremonial, like the naming of post offices.
Even funding the basic expenses of governing has become a recurring struggle. Just two years ago, the federal government shut down for several weeks after Congress failed to pass any spending bills. Often when bills are passed, the funding is for short-term chunks, with votes taken last-minute and late at night.
Even the politicians faulted for creating the gridlock say they are exasperated by it.
“I don’t think there is anything optimistic about this,” Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said at a recent weekly breakfast in his Capitol Hill office for Minnesotans. “There is nothing more depressing to me than that.”
Inaction inside the beltway often creates uncertainty beyond it, which can be heard in the voices of mayors, business owners, farmers and county officials of all political stripes.
Lowry, the Blaine business owner, said that last year he squirreled away $500,000 in anticipation of a federal tax bill for his Dayton Rogers company, which manufactures aerospace, medical and automotive parts. Then in December, just before the year ended, he learned that Congress had voted to extend a tax break that would give him some relief.
Lowry was grateful to have the money back, but said that had he known earlier, he would have used it to buy more equipment to expand his business. This year he faces the same situation. He particularly wants to grow his 3-D printing business, and more equipment would mean more hiring.
“You can debate whether we should have them,” Lowry said of business tax breaks. “I just need to know, are they going to be there or are they not going to be there? I make decisions based on the rules handed to me. The uncertainty drives you insane when you’re trying to run a business.”
Bill Blazar, interim president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said frustration with Washington is a common theme among business owners and managers across the state.
“We do hear from Minnesota companies about problems that if Congress and the president would act in a timely fashion, these problems would not exist,” he said. “I think you would be hard-pressed to find an issue where Congress has been timely in the last couple of years.”
How can you plan?
Kubista is trying to manage a highway project out of Montevideo, Minn.
The Chippewa County engineer hopes Congress will approve more money for the Highway Trust Fund before it runs dry July 31. Recently workers in his county embarked on a new $400,000 bike trail, with 80 percent of costs to be footed by the federal government. Kubista said that even if the Highway Trust Fund goes broke, the county has the reserves to finish the trail and intends to do so.
But he frets about a $2 million repaving project that needs to start next year on a main thoroughfare that weaves straight through Chippewa County. If no federal dollars come through, the county would not have enough money to fund that, too.
“The hardest part is not knowing how to plan,” Kubista said. “How can you plan when you don’t know?”
Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., often bemoans the current foot-dragging culture in Congress. He recently urged Republican leadership to move on a permanent infrastructure fix.
“The answer is, we have no choice but to muster the will and do what needs to be done,” Nolan said.
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges agrees.
Every year, Hodges watches for federal cash to help pay for everything from housing for the poor to violence prevention to early-child-care grants. She says she has a hard time planning because it’s difficult to predict what Congress will accomplish. She plows forward with programs she knows she can sustain and does what she can with local and state funds.
“You name any issue the city cares about … congressional gridlock is going to have an impact,” she said.
Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., said that at the beginning of this new term, in January, he was pessimistic. “We were fighting over Homeland Security funding, it wasn’t good,” he said.
But in the past couple of months, he feels a little better, pointing to his bipartisan human trafficking legislation, which was signed by President Obama.
Trade issues are often contentious, Nolan added, “but you just saw Republicans working with the president. I think things are on the upswing.”
Other big issues, such as immigration reform, appear stuck in a state of permanent political crossfire.
Lunemann, the Clarissa dairy farmer who also is president of the Milk Producers Association, said immigration reform would help farmers like him find more workers to help care for their livestock.
A couple of years ago, the Senate passed a massive immigration reform bill that would have helped Lunemann a great deal — even though, he notes, he didn’t agree with everything in it.
The House never took up the bill and now, in a new Congress, lawmakers have to start from scratch.
Each day, Lunemann says he scrambles because of local workforce shortages.
“If someone leaves, we hire the next available warm body, which is not the way you want to run your business,” he said. “I have a friend of mine who milks cows. … He said he is so tired of pulling people out of the bar when they are supposed to be milking his cows. We have to fix this problem.”