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.
Still, many insiders are betting that even a small bargain is beyond reach and that, instead, congressional leaders will have to figure out early next year how to keep the government running when funding authority expires Jan. 15.
Another big item in danger of falling by the wayside is the annual Pentagon policy bill. For the past 50 years, each Congress has considered national security such a sacrosanct bipartisan goal that legislation dictating Defense Department policy has been approved by a wide margin. Last month, however, the Senate hit a road block over the number of amendments to consider in its version of the bill, including an effort to revamp military sexual-assault cases and an effort to increase sanctions against Iran as the administration reached a tentative nuclear pact with the nation.
Reid has said he will take another shot at passing the Pentagon bill in two weeks, but that leaves almost no time to approve the Senate version, reconcile differences with the House and then pass a final bill through each chamber.
With such little time to get things done, senior House GOP and Senate Democratic advisers suggest that a trio of benefits that expire Dec. 31 are not likely to win approval. Those include some unemployment benefits, funding to help workers displaced by global trade, and a collection of business-friendly tax breaks, including some for research and development.
Another key issue that is up in the air is the “doc fix,” a nearly annual alteration to the fees paid to Medicare providers to assure that doctors and hospitals do not drop patients from the entitlement program.
Some of those issues could be wrapped into a spending bill that must be approved by Jan. 15, with retroactive benefits applied to mitigate any damage from the lapse from the end of December.
Among the items on the must-do list, the confirmation of the new Fed chairman is the top priority as Ben S. Bernanke’s long tenure overseeing the nation’s monetary policy concludes. Janet L. Yellen, vice chair of the Fed, has cleared the Senate banking committee and already had more than enough support from Republicans to clear a 60-vote filibuster hurdle before Democrats unilaterally changed the rules and made all confirmations subject to a simple majority.
The Yellen nomination should be finalized by mid-December, while several others could also be considered: Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), to run the organization that oversees mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Jeh Johnson’s nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; and three nominees to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Of those, Watt’s nomination and the federal judgeships are likely to face the stiffest objections from Senate Republicans; the GOP had previously filibustered them. The new rules may make it easier to move the Johnson nomination, but several of the others could get pushed back into next year. One circuit court nomination, that of Patricia Millet, is certain to win passage; it is set to be the Senate’s first vote when it returns Dec. 9.
House and Senate aides agree that there are two other items that must be dealt with: farm policy and the expiration of laws banning plastic guns.
House and Senate negotiators have been trying to reach agreement on a broad farm bill that would extract more than $30 billion or so in savings from current spending levels, but they have been unable to close the wide gap between their respective proposals on funding levels for food stamps.
Barring a breakthrough in those talks, Congress must at least pass some form of an extension of farm laws by year’s end or face the threat of havoc in the agriculture markets, particularly dairy, which could lead to price shocks on milk.
On Dec. 9, the 1988 law banning weapons manufacturers from making guns that cannot be detected by security systems expires, and GOP and Democratic aides said the two chambers are anxious to approve some extension of the law to deter wider criminal use of the plastic guns, which are less detectable than their metallic versions.