The U.S. Congress that just ended was dysfunctional and unpopular, and its successor promises to have as much trouble passing effective legislation.
Approval ratings for the 112th Congress dipped below 10 percent last year, meaning the institution was about as popular with the public as switching to a Communist regime, according to Gallup and Rasmussen polling data.
Maybe that was because lawmakers couldn’t agree on much of anything -- making them less productive, even, than the 80th Session that President Harry Truman famously dubbed the “do-nothing Congress.” The 112th Congress deadlocked on a long-range plan to reduce the budget deficit. It couldn’t pass an annual budget or figure out how to help the failing U.S. Postal Service. It didn’t advance legislation on immigration, energy or tax policy.
“The types of fights that we saw in both houses, whether it was on the fiscal cliff or debt ceiling, are becoming more the norm than the exception,” said Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst with the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “That’s not going to be ending” in the 113th Congress.
The historically unproductive 112th Congress is less popular than some odious insects, including head lice and cockroaches, according to a Public Policy Polling survey released yesterday.
Other things more popular than Congress, according to the survey, included root canals, Genghis Khan, used-car salesmen and Brussels sprouts. Congress, however, beat out telemarketers, North Korea and the Ebola virus.
The 2012 election didn’t change the makeup of congressional leadership, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate majority. The results only hardened the divides that thwarted deal-making, with moderates disappearing in both congressional chambers.
In the House, only 14 members align with the fiscally moderate Blue Dog Democratic coalition, down from 54 four years ago. Senate lawmakers known for working across the aisle on legislation, such as Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska, aren’t members of the new Congress.
As lawmakers return to Capitol Hill later this month after convening the new session last week, they’ll face a trio of deadlines that will crowd out most other issues. The need to raise the nation’s borrowing limit will coincide with the start of automatic spending cuts that were delayed until late February, and a six-month extension of federal spending will expire in late March.
The spending cuts and stopgap funding bill are a direct result of the previous Congress’s unsuccessful attempts to address the nation’s most basic fiscal priorities.
The federal government is relying on temporary funding because of the congressional failure to adopt a budget. Lawmakers designed the across-the-board spending cuts in 2011 as a way to force themselves into a broad debt-reduction agreement. That didn’t happen, setting up more fights.
“It’s going to dominate everything, quite frankly, spending is going to dominate the next two years,” said Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma, chairman of the Republican House Policy Committee. “When you’re overspending a trillion dollars a year, it’s tough to say a lot of other issues rise to the top.”
The departures of centrist lawmakers suggest that partisan divisions will prove a more serious obstacle to progress than a jammed calendar. Nelson, who retired, and Brown, who was defeated by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, were replaced by members expected to closely align with their party bases.
Other senators who worked on bipartisan measures and have exited include Republicans Olympia Snowe of Maine and Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota. While Democrats picked up two Senate seats for this session, their caucus is five short of the 60 votes needed to advance most major legislation.
In the Republican-led House, moderate Democrats from the South departed while many Republican Tea Party-backed members were re-elected, Taylor said.
“You have moderates leaving and both parties moving towards their extremes,” he said, and “you’ll see them try to push their parties toward those axes.”
This polarization is the main barrier to passing measures that would address a range of national priorities, said Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat.
Because of a system of closed party primaries, “we now have ideologically purified parties,” he said. Sherman is the product of California’s new primary system that allows members of the same party to compete against each other if they are the top two finishers in the first round of balloting.
Even some of Congress’s newest lawmakers predict that the previous session’s record is a script for the next two years.
In the final moments of the last session, House Republicans blocked a vote to provide Hurricane Sandy relief funds. A few days later, Republican leaders rushed a narrower flood insurance bill to the floor in the new session after Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, and others protested the decision by House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, to cancel the vote on the broader measure.
It was a sobering display of the government’s inability to respond to basic needs, said Representative Mark Takano, a freshman Democrat from California who had just arrived in Washington. “I was shocked by the failure to pass aid for Sandy,” he said.
The hurricane struck the Northeast Oct. 29. In 2005, Congress passed an aid measure 10 days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
Still, some lawmakers say they see possible signs of bipartisanship. Representative Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said he’s hopeful that Boehner could decide to bring to the floor bills supported by both Democrats and Republicans.
“My Republican friends have to decide how much more self-indulgence they want to engage in in terms of feel-good bills that are going nowhere,” Connolly said. House Republicans have voted at least 33 times to repeal portions of the 2010 health-care law, for instance.
The expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts and the series of automatic spending cuts set to take effect this month that the 112th Congress averted at the last moment risked a recession in the second half of this year. The stakes for the U.S. economy and financial markets are greater if talks break down over raising the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling, Takano said.
So far U.S. Treasury bond investors -- who are most directly at risk in the event of a government default -- are unfazed. Yields on long-term U.S. debt are near record lows as investors appear convinced that Washington will manage to avoid defaulting on the nation’s debt.
The practice of running the government’s day-to-day operations through a series of temporary spending bills is expected to continue as Republicans and Democrats poise for a major fiscal clash in the next three months. Boehner is insisting spending cuts must accompany any increase in the debt limit or new federal funds needed to keep the government from shutting down.
President Barack Obama said efforts to cut the deficit must include new revenue, which Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and other Republicans reject. “I think Mr. McConnell is dead serious when he says ‘We’re done with taxes,’” said Steve Bell, a former Republican budget aide.
The divide may portend another government shutdown. In a Jan. 4 opinion editorial in the Houston Chronicle, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas warned: “It may be necessary to partially shut down the government in order to secure the long-term fiscal well-being of our country.”
The White House has signaled that immigration will be a legislative priority, even with the difficulty of winning Republican votes for such a measure.
The president’s most immediate priority is tougher gun restrictions following the Dec. 14 shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, including renewing and strengthening the 1994 federal assault weapons ban. Vice President Joe Biden is leading a panel that will make recommendations later this month.
To pass gun control legislation, Democratic leaders will need the help of pro-gun rights Democrats and Republicans. So far, with the exception of Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, few of these lawmakers have spoken in favor of measures such as toughening background checks and limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Instead, some lawmakers are warning against an ambitious agenda backed by the White House. In a Jan. 6 interview on ABC News, Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, an incoming Democrat, expressed concern about “extreme” gun-related legislation that’s “not going to pass.”
Meanwhile, the partisan divide over the budget that dominated the last session is likely to remain center stage this year.
“This war is going to dominate,” said Bell. “All of the other things you want to do, whether it’s infrastructure or immigration reform, is going to be swamped by this.”