A meat cleaver hangs over the federal government, but the unflappable men and women of the House majority remain cool and poised.
With just a few days to stop automatic spending cuts from affecting everything from air travel to food inspections, House Republicans had but one item on their agenda Monday: renaming a NASA facility in California.
HR 667, as this urgently needed legislation is known, would "redesignate the Dryden Flight Research Center as the Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center."
You'd have to be on another planet to think that renaming NASA operations is Congress' most pressing order of business this week. But for Republicans, using this moment to honor the first man to walk on the moon is not lunar lunacy. The naming proposal was taken up at a time when House Republicans are pursuing a considered strategy of deliberate idleness.
After months of fretting over the harmful effects of sequestration, as the automatic cuts are called, House Republicans have belatedly embraced the realization that if they do nothing at all, they will be rewarded Friday with a 2.5 percent cut in all federal spending without coughing up a single dollar in tax increases.
President Barack Obama is barnstorming the country, calling for tax increases and alternative spending cuts to replace the automatic ones. But while Republicans say they'd consider a different blend of reductions, they'd rather have the sequester than another deal like the one in December that raised taxes.
"The president says we have to have another tax increase in order to avoid the sequester," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference Monday. "Well, Mr. President, you got your tax increase. It's time to cut spending here in Washington."
Boehner instructed Obama to "sit down with Harry Reid tonight and work with Senate Democrats." As for House Republicans, they'll be busy doing ... well, not much.
Of the 56 days so far in 2013, the House has been in session for 20 -- and a large chunk of those have been pro-forma sessions without votes, or with ceremonial bills. After a week's recess, the chamber returned Monday with just a few items on the calendar. Lawmakers are scheduled to be out of town Friday, when the sequester is set to take effect. They're planning another recess at the end of March, when the federal government is due to shut down for lack of funding.
The House started its day Monday at 2 p.m. Before leading the Pledge of Allegiance, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., requested a roll-call vote on approving the journal of proceedings from the last day in session -- a time-wasting technique.
Next, Rep. Joe "You Lie" Wilson, R-S.C., requested a minute of time to speak his mind, closing with his standard sign-off: "In conclusion, God bless our troops, and we'll never forget Sept. 11 and the global war on terror." After Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles, spoke about climate change, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, had something to say about "the president's takeover of health care."
Next, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., pleaded for the House to "abandon this reckless policy" of sequestration. Foxx, citing an op-ed by Bob Woodward in Sunday's Washington Post, replied that the sequester "was the brainchild of the Obama administration" and that it is up to Democrats to replace it.
It was 2:10 p.m. -- 10 minutes into the day's proceedings -- and the speaker called a three-hour recess. Finally, it was time for the NASA renaming. The task before the House: to put Armstrong's name on the facility, relegating that of Hugh L. Dryden, a NASA engineer who died almost 50 years ago, to the facility's test range.
The bill passed the House in the last Congress by a vote of 404 to 0 (the Senate didn't take it up), so it could have cleared the chamber with a simple voice vote. But that would not have eaten up much time. And so six lawmakers chewed up almost half an hour on the floor praising Armstrong and Dryden.
The lone Democrat to speak, Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, noted the irony in the vote. "We will do our renaming today," she said, and then "we will take an ax hammer to NASA's budget on March 1, at the end of this week, taking out $894 million from an already strapped budget. I dare say future generations will not be inspired by what this Congress will do."
The speaker declared another recess.
Dana Milbank is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.