The Easy Politics of Defunding Nazis and Penis Pumps

Congress has just a few weeks to avert a government shutdown and prevent the expiration of dozens of tax breaks important to businesses. So what has the House been up to this week? Stripping Social Security benefits from a handful of former Nazis and stopping Medicare from paying for penis pumps.

In the often frenetic final weeks of a congressional session, lawmakers are dispensing with the easy while dawdling on the difficult. After working in Washington for just a few weeks since the summer, they are scheduled to leave again for the holidays on December 11, the day that funding for most of the federal government expires. House Republican leaders are trying to persuade their members, and some Democrats, to support legislation that would fund all but one of the 12 federal departments through September. As a protest of President Obama’s immigration action, the Department of Homeland Security would receive money only through March.

Meanwhile, the House on Tuesday evening approved a bunch of bills subject to much less controversy. The most notable among them was the No Social Security for Nazis Act, a rapid response measure—especially for Congress—to a report that suspected war criminals forced out of the U.S. had received, and in a few cases are continuing to receive, federal entitlement checks. The bill passed unanimously, 420-0, and seems likely to sail through the Senate as well. Even though the measure will probably only affect a few ex-Nazis still living in Europe, it may amount to the most significant cut in years to an entitlement program infamously referred to as “the third rail” of American politics.

On Wednesday, the House turned to penis pumps. Specifically, lawmakers debated a bipartisan bill called the ABLE Act that would allow disabled people to set up tax-advantaged accounts to pay for expenses like education and healthcare. As Roll Call first noted, the cost of the $2 billion measure would be offset, in part, by $450 million in savings from prohibiting Medicare payments for “vacuum erection systems,” commonly known as penis pumps. While the new program for the disabled has wide support in both parties, the fact that the bill has taken so long to pass is a testament to the very few politically palatable ways to cut spending to pay for it, particularly in a popular area like Medicare.

As for the tax breaks, the story is a familiar failure: A major agreement to permanently extend provisions like the credit for research and development and deductions for small businesses and charitable giving fell through following a veto threat from the White House, which demanded a simultaneous extension of tax breaks benefiting the poor and working class. Lawmakers instead are likely to approve only short-term extensions, frustrating just about everyone. If Speaker John Boehner can persuade the House to pass the spending bill next week, Congress will achieve what amounts as its highest form of accomplishment these days: avoiding a crisis.