Outgoing Congress proves to be unproductive to the end

Scott Olson/Getty Images - Harry Garrett loads mail onto a conveyor at the United States Postal Service Chicago Logistics and Distribution Center on December 17, 2012 in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

The 112th Congress is limping to a formal close next week with the dubious distinction of passing fewer bills into law than any Congress in decades.

Its dismal record will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been watching the post-election lame duck session consumed by lawmakers’ inability — so far — to craft a deal to avert the year-end “fiscal cliff.”

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But the number of legislative disputes that they have failed to resolve while they have been failing to craft a budget deal is equally striking. They include reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, renewing a sweeping farm bill and reforming the U.S. Postal Service.

Congress’s inability to solve even the stuff that used to be considered routine in Washington portends trouble for work on broader legislative initiatives like immigration reform or new gun control laws next year, when Republicans will continue to have solid control of the House and the Democrats’ majority in the Senate will expand by two seats.

And it leaves lawmakers themselves deeply discouraged with the pace of their own accomplishments.

“It’s been like watching paint dry,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) of Congress’s action.

Asked whether he was frustrated by Congress’s pace, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) sighed. “It’s the least productive time in your life, and you’re 65 years of age. What would you think?”

The Violence Against Women Act, which outlines spending priorities for programs that aid abuse victims and prosecute their abusers and has been reauthorized without fanfare twice before, lapsed more than a year ago.

One version of the bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support; a competing GOP version was adopted by the House. The two sides have not been able to reconcile their differences.

The nation’s cash-strapped Postal Service continues to hemorrhage money. But Congress has not managed to agree to reforms widely believed likely to stabilize the service, including ending Saturday deliveries and beginning to shutter thousands of tiny post offices.

The Senate passed a bipartisan bill in April that would do just that, but the issue has gone nowhere in the House amid a dispute over how to handle future worker compensation claims from injured postal employees.

If no bill is passed by midday on Thursday, when new lawmakers elected in November officially take office, Congress will have to start work on the issue all over again.

And milk prices are set to potentially double if Congress can’t agree to renew a sweeping farm bill by Tuesday, which outlines agriculture subsidies and governs the nation’s food-stamp program.

Hopes for adopting a new five-year measure that would significantly trim government payments to farmers have dimmed. Now, lawmakers are striving to pass only a patch to last for a few months and forestall the milk crisis.

That would match a pattern of this Congress, which has repeatedly agreed to brief extensions of the status quo on a host of issues when negotiations over long-term fixes have fallen apart.

“I don’t think either party — and I’d throw the president in there — can be proud of what’s gone on for the last few years,” said Rep. Steven C. LaTourette (R-Ohio), who decided not to run for reelection in November in part because he had become disenchanted at the inability of the parties to work together.

On Friday, the Senate did adopt two major pieces of legislation. It renewed expansive U.S. surveillance authority for five years, sending a bill that had been adopted by the House in September to President Obama. The Senate also agreed to a $60.4 billion aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy, but it is not clear whether the House will act on the measure before this Congress dissolves on Thursday.

Still, Congress’s legislative record for the past two years has been thin. Democrats argue that’s the result of the obstruction by the new Republican majority in the House, which swept to power in 2010 promising to remake Washington and has acted to put the brakes on government spending.

Indeed, some of the most high-profile logjams likely to remain when the new Congress takes over next week involve issues that had found a bipartisan resolution in the Senate but were blocked in the House.

And most high-profile conflagrations of the past two years — the 2011 fight over raising the debt ceiling and this month’s sparring over the impending fiscal cliff — were eagerly sought by House Republicans who wanted a showdown about the size and scope of government.

“It’s the worst ever partly in terms of what wasn’t done,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who co-wrote an opinion piece last April that argued Congress’s dysfunction has stemmed from a rightward shift of the GOP.

“But it’s been worst too in the sense of what was done. The time spent arguing and fighting and maneuvering and blackmailing and hostage-taking over presumed spending cuts and taxes did a great deal of harm to the country,” he said.

House members counter that Americans chose a divided government, which naturally sometimes results in stalemates. Gridlock goes both ways: House Republicans have passed dozens of bills that they believe will spur job creation, like limiting environmental regulations and opening new areas to offshore drilling, that the Senate has blocked.

And the Senate, too, has failed to adopt a budget in more than three years.

“My frustration is with the Senate. I have no idea what they do over there,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

Besides, Chaffetz said, some items that have been traditionally easy lifts for Congress were “pork-ridden” bills that deserved closer scrutiny.

“Numbers of bills passed should not be a litmus test for a Congress,” he said. “Often times, Congress being in session is itself the problem.”

Regardless of the reason for the turtle pace, Americans have taken notice.

For three years, Congress’s approval rating has never risen above 25 percent. In August 2012, it sank to just 10 percent, a record low for any Congress.

This Congress will leave office with an 18 percent approval rating, according to a mid-December poll from USA Today/Gallup, the second-lowest final score for any Congress.

But even so, only a handful of lawmakers were tossed out of office in November. With the dynamics little changed when the 113th Congress takes over next week, there may be little hope for change.

Mann said he believes the GOP is conducting a broad internal reassessment in reaction to their presidential candidate’s loss that could result in chances for new bipartisan coalitions to form around issues other than the nation’s fiscal challenges, like immigration.

But the nation’s deepening polarization means there are fewer issues that don’t run smack up against the fundamental divides between the parties, said Bill Galston, another congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

“You have to look very hard to find a bill of any size that doesn’t implicate a fiscal or social issue or both,” he said.

Ed O’Keefe and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

 
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