113th Congress, going down in history for its inaction, has a critical December to-do list
By Paul Kane
The good news for Congress as it heads into the final workdays of the year is that, for the first time in five years, there are no edge-of-the-cliff December crises threatening to bring the country to its knees.
The bad news is that whatever gets done in December will still be part of a year with record-low congressional accomplishment.
From the confirmation of a new Federal Reserve chairman to the expiration of dairy pricing rules, House and Senate leaders head into the final month of 2013 with a checklist that is short but critical. But even a final burst of activity would do little to change the historic arc of this calendar year under the Capitol dome.
According to congressional records, there have been fewer than 60 public laws enacted in the first 11 months of this year, so below the previous low in legislative output that officials have already declared this first session of the 113th Congress the least productive ever. In 1995, when the newly empowered GOP congressional majority confronted the Clinton administration, 88 laws were enacted, the record low in the post-World War II era.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), pressed about what his majority had to show for its work in 2013, told reporters in mid-November that the GOP was most proud of putting a brake on tougher regulations on business and impeding efforts by President Obama to push a more liberal agenda on the country.
“Listen,” Boehner said, “we have a very divided country and we have a very divided government. And I’m not going to sit here and underestimate the difficulty in finding the common ground, because there’s not as much common ground here as there used to be.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) cited congressional dysfunction in his decision to break precedent and change rules regarding presidential nominations so that a simple majority could advance a confirmation to a final vote. He laughed last week when a radio interviewer asked whether the fallout from his unilateral move would lead to fewer accomplishments, suggesting that was not possible.
“More dysfunction? I mean, gee whiz,” Reid said to public radio interviewer Diane Rehm.
With those low expectations, it is unclear how much can get done as the GOP-controlled House and Democratic-run Senate continue to be at loggerheads on the most basic of functions.
Take their schedules, with each chamber slated to be in session two weeks and then breaking for the holiday season.
Rather than syncing up those final two weeks, the House comes in Monday and expects to adjourn for the year by Dec. 13, while the Senate does not return from the Thanksgiving break until Dec. 9 and has Dec. 20 as its tentative departure date.
That leaves only a few mid-December days for in-person negotiations among top congressional leaders.
And that has left hopes mixed as to whether the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), can reach a broader pact that will set a budget framework for federal agency spending for the rest of the fiscal year. Both lawmakers have expressed optimism in the past few weeks, but that is largely because they have narrowed the scope of their aspirations. Their talks now focus on just a few possible trade-offs that give agencies some relief from the sequestration caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act in exchange for some savings drawn from entitlement programs.