The House and Senate will work just a few days this week then leave town until after the November election, abandoning work on legislation that's needed to avert looming tax hikes and more than $1 trillion in mandatory federal spending cuts so they can spend their days campaigning for re-election.
Even as lawmakers deride the state of the nation's finances and demand fiscal responsibility in front of voters back home, that sense of urgency is fare more muted on Capitol Hill. When lawmakers leave this week, they will leave behind a great deal of unfinished business, much of it consequential enough that a failure to address it could send an already weak economy into a tailspin.
"Its a sad state of affairs that the best this House can do is punt all spending decisions on this year's budget to the next Congress," Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said Friday after House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., announced the early departure.
Despite such partisan sniping, both parties are equally eager to put aside the budget issues and hit the campaign trail, leaving the work for their post-election lame-duck session or a new Congress in January. Republicans who control the House moved to adjourn early, but so did the Democrats who control the Senate.
"Their unwillingness to even try to stay this month to hash out a solution is just a recognition of the reality that the politics are so intense that the parties are only going to be able to come together after the election," Alex Brill, a tax policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Washington Examiner.
When they return one week after the Nov. 6 election, lawmakers will have just six weeks to work out several complicated fiscal problems, including a deal that would allow the government to avoid $1.2 trillion in automatic budget cuts, including deep cuts in defense spending, scheduled to take effect in January.
Lawmakers also have to strike a deal on whether to extend income tax cuts, which expire at year's end -- raising everyone's taxes -- if they fail to act.
"This is definitely not the first time they have left business until the end of the year, but this is the first time the issues that we are facing have been this large," Brill said.
So severe are the consequences that lawmakers and economists have taken to calling the combination of automatic budget cuts and tax increases the "fiscal cliff." If lawmakers take the nation over it, federal programs, including the military, would be slashed and taxes would rise, at least temporarily. The unemployment rate, now hovering just above 8 percent, would jump to 9.1 percent next year and wouldn't drop below 8 percent again until 2015, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Adding more uncertainty to the situation, it's unclear which party will have control of the Senate and White House after the elections. But changes in control would almost certainly alter negotiations over spending and taxes.
All of these unknowns, Brill said, may already be hurting the economy because they're undermining public confidence that lawmakers will ever be able to work out these serious problems.
"Employers and consumers," Brill said, "don't have a lot of faith the Congress is going to find a solution to this."