Is It Crazy to Expect Congress to Be Productive From Now On?


Source: Getty Images

Is this the end of Congress’s productivity problem?

The last weeks of the current session of Congress will conclude the least productive legislative period in its history. Back in July, with the summer recess and break for the congressional midterm elections approaching, Josh Tauberer — the transparency advocate who created GovTrack, a website that compiles data on Congress and legislation — calculated that the 113th Congress was on track to underperform every session convened since 1973. Tauberer estimated that the 113th Congress will enact 251 laws in total by the end of its two-year term, more than 10% fewer bills than passed by even the previous Congress. Nothing in the past four months suggests that record will not be hit. With the 2014 elections completed and a new class of senators and representatives chosen, the lame-duck session of Congress has only a select number of essential housekeeping tasks to accomplish: Vetting a backlog of presidential nominations for a variety of agencies and the federal bench, and passing a continuing resolution — the law that keeps the government operating in lieu of an actual budget — by December 11, when the previous CR expires.

Congressional productivity

Source: GovTrack, the Washington Post

The last legislative burst of the 113th Congress will, to a small degree, shape the coming session. The passage from one legislative session to another is fluid in the sense that 95% of incumbent Congress members were reelected on November 4, despite their meager 14% approval rating. Leaders like soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA.), and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) have been in Congress for more than 20 years. These leaders realize that the American electorate is now focused on legislative productivity, specifically bipartisan cooperation, and therefore lawmakers will likely attempt to earmark legislation that will be able to pass through both houses next session.

In the last weeks of the 113th Congress, and next session lawmakers in the Senate and the House of Representatives will have to contend with a weighty promise: “Normal” legislative functioning. For months, survey data has shown that, aside from the economy, the primary problem with the United States identified by voters is the government; approximately one-third of voters told Gallup that newly elected representatives and senators should not focus on specific issues but on fixing how Congress works. In the immediate aftermath of the elections — which sent a wave of Republicans into both houses of Congress, giving the party a majority in the Senate — GOP congressional leaders claimed they saw the results as a mandate to repair the federal government. When McConnell and President Barack Obama spoke the day after the midterm elections they both stressed that voters had spoken their disapproval of “governing by crisis” at the ballot box Tuesday night. But each set out their limits to cooperation; each pointed to the fact the other must move closer to the center. And setting aside clever witticisms (including Obama’s offer to drink Kentucky Bourbon with McConnell) and abstract promises, the two leaders left a lot of room for future stalemate. And Obama himself admitted that “Congress will pass some bills I cannot sign.”

No one expects any important legislation like immigration reform to be passed during the lame-duck session. But this is not to say the continuing resolution is not absolutely necessary, nor unlikely to be inked before the early December deadline. McConnell clearly pledged to avoid crisis. “Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns and no default on the national debt,” he said at last week’s press conference.

Funding the Federal Government

Last October, brinkmanship politics led to a shutdown of the United States government — the first in 17 years, but the eighteenth in the history of the country. Because the continuing resolution funded several provisions (which the Democrat-controlled Senate would not remove) of the GOP-opposed Affordable Care Act, Republicans in the House of Representatives failed to pass a spending bill for more than two weeks, prompting a partial shutdown of the government. And no doubt discretionary spending will be a continuous issue when the CR is debated in coming weeks.

But it is expected that the 113th Congress will pass either a short-term patch to the budget problem next month, which will keep the government funded through March, or ink an approximately one-trillion-dollar omnibus spending bill — which packages together smaller appropriations bills into a single piece of legislation that can be passed with only a single vote from each house of Congress. The most likely path congressional Republicans will follow is that of the short-term CR extension, which will fund the government into the new legislative session, when the GOP will control the Senate and have larger House majority. In March, Republican lawmakers will be able to craft spending legislation that is more attuned with the party’s interests and Democrats will be unable to filibuster the budget resolution, thanks to the Congressional Budget Act.

What About Republican’s Ideological Differences?

Already there is evidence of problems to come. Kentucky’s junior senator, Republican Rand Paul, has announced he is “against kind of Continuing Resolution or omnibus” bill. He told the conservative news outlet Breitbart in an exclusive interview that congressional republicans should pass appropriations bills. By passing individual appropriations bills, Republicans will be able to tell Obama how to spend taxpayers’ money. “If we were to pass all 12 of the appropriations bills, we’d have an enormous amount of power. But if you wait and pass them all into one enormous omnibus bill, you have no power,” Paul argued. “If it’s wait until ‘shut the government down or don’t shut the government down,’ then everybody’s tendency is ‘let’s just keep it going so we don’t get blamed for shutting the government down.’ But as a consequence, we keep spending money and borrowing money at a million dollars a minute.”

The other issue for Republicans is intraparty disagreements. The new and larger GOP House majority will be more conservative than the current session, and lawmakers will likely push for a budget that is more inline with Tea Party goals. But in the Senate, despite the wave of new GOP lawmakers, the balance of power is different. Twenty-four of the 34 senators up for reelection in 2016 are Republicans, many of whom are from blue states, meaning they will not be eager to alienate moderate voters.

How Will Greater Cooperation Really Come About?

Necessity will likely push Congress to pass a CR of some kind. After all, last year’s government shutdown left nearly everyone with a bad taste in their mouth. Congress’s approval rating plummeted and “political dysfunction” became synonymous with  “Congress.” Now is the honeymoon period for Republicans, but one wonders how long concern for the people’s mandate will last Congress, especially when the sticky issue of immigration reform crops up. Despite lawmakers’ apparently conciliatory comments, hot button issues like immigration reform and a possible repeal of the health care reform will be as divisive as ever.

But there are measures that can be taken to ensure actual legislating occurs. McConnell discussed his governing vision last week, promised a deliberate body that advances legislation through compromise, compromise achieved by late-night sessions. The senator envisions more robust floor debates and giving more power to committee chairs, who will guide the agenda by drafting more legislation. “The only way 100 senators will truly be able to have their say, the only way we’ll be able to work through our tensions and disputes, is if we’re here more,” the 30-year Senate veteran said. “Some of us have been around long enough to remember when Thursday night was the main event. We worked late, sometimes well into the morning. And it worked.” And by worked, he meant Congress legislated.

Of course, then there is the presidential veto to consider.

More From Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS