WHAT DO you get when you mix a Republican-dominated House with a Democratic-majority Senate? Answer: not much — at least, not much legislation to address the country’s major challenges. So far in 2013, Congress has been in session for about a month less than last year and has produced a paltry 52 laws. With each chamber scheduled to work only another 11 days or so before the year-end holidays, it’s possible that Congress will fall short of the post-World War II record for fewest laws passed: 88, in 1995.
Neither comprehensive immigration reform, passed by the Senate but stalled in the House, nor a “grand bargain” on fiscal policy made it into law. Indeed, given the deep divisions on the Hill, we may look back on the 16-day government shutdown and the avoided default as major accomplishments of 2013. A conference committee is discussing a budgetary package for fiscal 2014, which will be considered a success if it slightly loosens the so-called sequester’s grip on spending priorities while avoiding another partial shutdown in January.
The lack of new laws is not a surprise, given partisan divisions. Less noticed, but arguably more depressing, is the number of existing federal programs still limping along under short-term extensions of outdated policy because Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on the terms of their reauthorization.
This category includes programs for low-income Americans, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and the farm bill, which includes a raft of agribusiness subsidies and regulations as well as food stamps; without its passage, dairy prices will go through the roof in January — for reasons only ag-law experts understand.
There was some hope that this might be the year Congress finally came up with a permanent solution to the perennial “doc fix” — staving off scheduled cuts to Medicare physician reimbursements that Congress adopted in 1997 but that doctors argue would drive many of them out of work. This year, the Congressional Budget Office announced that a permanent doc fix would cost $136 billion over 10 years, a dramatic reduction from previous estimates. The lower estimate is attributable to slowing inflation of overall health costs. Prompted by that good news, House and Senate tax-writing committees developed a “framework” for the doc fix, but they still haven’t come up with a convincing way to pay for it.
And now the annual defense authorization bill is caught up in the wrangling. For each of the last 51 years, Congress has passed a fresh law setting forth policy for the Pentagon. National security — and the billions in spending for constituents back home — compelled the House and Senate to act. Alas, the bill has stalled in the Senate, partly because of Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) time-consuming attempt to attach an anti-Obamacare amendment to a separate bill, partly because of Republican demands to offer more amendments than Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wants and partly because of controversy over reforming the military’s sexual-assault prosecutions. Unless this knot can be untangled, the casualty list of congressional dysfunction will grow to include the most basic federal responsibility of all: national defense.
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