Congress’s real reason for passing a budget? The smell of 'jet fumes'

'Jet fumes' is shorthand for lawmakers’ fierce desire to get to D.C.-area airports. It often drives legislative business – and that’s not a good trend, a former senator says.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California has put the smell of jet fumes temporarily on hold as her Democratic caucus objects to a provision in a federal spending bill to roll back part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

Members of Congress routinely scramble to Washington-area airports after less-than-taxing legislative gatherings. In this year’s lame-duck session, with about 10 percent of the House and Senate heading out the door for good, the smell of “jet fumes” – the shorthand for lawmakers’ universal yearning to hop on a plane – has intensified.

Jet fumes have proven to be a magic elixir in overcoming many a congressional impasse. With holiday plans beckoning, members of Congress don’t want to be stuck in D.C. any longer than necessary – particularly short-timers.

When NBC News’ Luke Russert was asked this week about the prospects for the so-called “cromnibus” spending bill funding government agencies in the Senate, he said on Twitter that senators “were starting to smell the jet fumes, [it’s] been a long year of trench warfare for these guys.” Similarly, CQ Roll Call reporter Steven Dennis observed a month ago that “Xmas jet fumes are some of the most powerful jet fumes.”

But the lure of jet fumes doesn’t always prevail. Two years earlier, members of Congress were still in town for the lame-duck session of the 112th Congress all the way to Jan. 1, 2013, due to debate over how to extend the Bush-era tax cuts that expired on Dec. 31, 2012. 

And during President Obama’s first year in office, his administration’s push for health care reform legislation put a serious crimp in lawmakers’ plans to dash for the airports. The Senate stayed in session through Christmas Eve 2009 debating – and ultimately passing – the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.

Some former members of Congress have noted the pull of airplane exhausts when it comes to setting Congress’s schedule. Former Maine GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe, for one, strongly criticizes the current preference for Tuesday-through-Thursday sessions. “By Thursday, you know, jet fumes, the smell of jet fumes,” she lamented on National Public Radio last year. “Everybody’s heading home, wanting to know when they can adjourn on Thursday so they can leave.”

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Decoder Voices.

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