Congress does something while nobody's looking

A funny thing happened in Washington last week: Congress approved several significant pieces of legislation on bipartisan votes and hardly anybody seemed to notice — or care (which might just explain how so much work got done).

Certainly, it's not that the actions were unimportant or lacked controversy. On Friday, Congress approved a package of bills to authorize the federal transportation program for another two years, maintain the interest rate on Stafford loans for college students at 3.4 percent and to extend for five years the National Flood Insurance Program, which subsidizes insurance for millions of Americans who live in flood-prone neighborhoods.

The transportation measure represents at least $100 billion in spending alone, and because Congress refused to increase the two-decade-old federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon, lawmakers had to find additional ways to pay for it. That included changes in how pension plan liabilities are calculated and raising premiums paid into the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

And that wasn't the only fee that Congress was willing to raise. Flood insurance policyholders will be paying about $2.7 billion more, and government help will be curtailed to some properties such as vacation homes. Students don't come out completely unscathed either. Undergraduates have to finish their degrees in six years or pay higher rates.

There are any number of theories for how actual work somehow managed to get done in the notoriously do-nothing, politically-gridlocked body, but here's the best one: It was hiding behind two major Supreme Court decisions (over immigration and health care reform) and a lot of hot air over Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and a contempt of Congress vote.

Even on the 24-hour cable stations, there's just so much room to breathlessly dramatize events out of the nation's capital. Fox News, in particular, was far too outraged over Chief Justice John Roberts and his "betrayal" of conservatives in the court's 5-4 "Obamacare" opinion to shoehorn in much about highway spending that will provide employment to an estimated 2.8 million Americans or the student loan extension that will save some 7.4 million students an average of $1,000 in interest costs.

Not that Republicans and Democrats alike couldn't easily have been attacked over their votes under different circumstances. At one time, GOP lawmakers were insisting that the transportation authorization include government approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and revoke EPA regulations regarding the use of coal ash (it doesn't). Democrats had insisted that transportation money be spent on conservation and "transportation enhancements" such as bike paths and sidewalks (the budget for both of which was ultimately reduced).

But the usual suspects were too worked up over President Barack Obama's won-loss record in the nation's highest court as well as a Fast and Furious investigation that focuses not on the botched performance of theBureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives but on what Congress was told about it afterward. They just couldn't manage to pay much attention to student loans, flood insurance or transportation.

So here's a modest suggestion. It's clear that Congress will only get things done when it has some kind of high-heat firestorm of debate is going on to suck up all the media-supplied oxygen, so members need to mark some dates on their calendar to take advantage. The day Mitt Romney selects his running mate looks good. Acceptance speeches at the political conventions and the subsequent presidential debates might work, too (especially if there's a good flub or two by the candidates). Such odd hours might not fit the usual Congressional calendar, but that's just too bad.

Admittedly, it probably didn't hurt that the White House was publicly pressuring Congress to act on transportation, student loans and flood insurance, and failure to pass those items would have been hugely embarrassing for an elected body that's already held in low-esteem by the public. But there is an even more painful prospect ahead — the so-called "fiscal cliff" of tax hikes and deep spending cuts that could go into effect on January 1 unless Congress takes action.

That might be politically impossible to address between now and the election, but laying the groundwork now so the lame duck Congress can craft a reasonable solution is not. Without such action, Washington might just slip the economy back into recession. And no amount of bloviation is going to allow lawmakers to hide from that.