One of the most unproductive and least popular Congresses in history has gaveled to a close, concluding a two-year period that will be remembered for its brinksmanship and lack of legislating.
The 113th Congress shut the government down for 16 days in 2013, and nearly did so again last week before passing a $1.1 trillion spending bill packed with last-minute measures added by Republican leaders.
By the time President Obama puts his pen to paper on a flurry of legislation sent to his desk at the end of the session, only about 280 bills will have become law in the last two years.
Few Congresses have sent less bills to a president in 20 years, a reason some are describing it as a “do-nothing Congress.”
“It’s been one of the most effective, most productive Congresses in the history of the country, and I love going back to Arizona and saying, ‘Oh, we’re so proud. We just did a continuing resolution with about an hour of debate to fund the entire government,’ ” McCain said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
This Congress began with Senate Democrats hoping to move legislation on gun control and immigration reform. The gun control package died in the upper chamber, while immigration reform cleared the Senate only to be held up in the House.
Republicans in the lower chamber sent dozens of bills on the economy and healthcare to the Senate, almost all of which died.
Public opinion polls suggest voters are more than frustrated with Congress.
Approval of Congress averaged just 15 percent in 2014, according to Gallup. That’s just one point more than the all-time low of 14 percent — which was set by the same Congress in 2013.
The terrible approval ratings didn’t hurt Republicans in the midterm elections, however. They will have their largest majority since the Truman administration when the new Congress takes its seats in January.
But voters punished Democrats in the midterms, particularly in the Senate, where they will be in the minority for the first time since 2006.
Obama, whose own approval ratings are in the low 40s, noted that two-thirds of Americans showed their displeasure with Washington, D.C., by not even voting.
Senators in both parties have expressed deep frustration with the upper chamber, where Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidNearly 400 House bills stuck in Senate limbo Puerto Rico debt relief faces serious challenges in Senate McCain files B amendment to boost defense spending MORE (D-Nev.) and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell: Trump White House will have ‘constraints’ Nearly 400 House bills stuck in Senate limbo McConnell-allied group: We'll back Rubio if he runs for reelection MORE (Ky.) have battled with procedural moves, moving legislating to a standstill.
“This place has to start working again,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChris MurphyOvernight Healthcare: Momentum on mental health? | Zika bills head to conference | Only 10 ObamaCare co-ops left Senators hope for deal soon on mental health bill Overnight Healthcare: IRS doubted legality of ObamaCare payments, ex-official says MORE (D-Conn.). “I’m sick and tired of going home and explaining why we’re not passing anything. So my hope is Republicans are serious about changing the way that business is done.”
McCain expressed optimism the new Republican majority would offer a revamped Senate culture.
“Mitch McConnell has promised we will take up bill by bill, vote after vote and, guess — work on Friday. Oh, the horror!” McCain said.
Some lawmakers who aren’t coming back next year made no secret of their disdain for the gridlock that characterized this Congress.
“I think that this particular experience, as many others, has validated my decision to leave,” retiring Rep. Jim MoranJim MoranBottom Line Congress and new labor laws: what goes around comes around Ten House seats Dems hope Trump will tilt MORE (D-Va.) said last week as the “cromnibus” was on the brink of failing.
A divided Congress and election year is partly to blame for the lack of legislating. Facing similar challenges, the 112th Congress managed to have only 284 bills signed into law.
Records show a steady decline since the 1970s, when sessions of Congress averaged more than 700 bills passed into law.
Not surprisingly, the most productive Congress during Obama’s presidency so far was when Democrats controlled both chambers during the 110th Congress — 385 bills became law, including ObamaCare and Wall Street reform.
Both chambers accused the other of wasting time on political show votes.
The House voted more than 50 times to repeal the 2010 healthcare overhaul. Meanwhile, the Senate spent most of 2014 voting on wedge issues, such as gender and wealth equality, ahead of the election.
After the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill last year only to have it go nowhere in the House, Reid turned the upper chamber's focus to confirming Obama's executive and judicial nominations and the Democrats' “Fair Shot” agenda.
Senate Democrats also tried to pass gun control reform legislation early in 2013 in light of the shooting in Newtown, Conn. But it failed to advance and became another bill that the Senate couldn’t move forward.
Senate Republicans forced Democrats to use up all procedural time on dozens of nominations as a form of protest to Reid using the "nuclear option" last year to change filibuster rules and allow most nominees to be confirmed by a majority vote. That caused the Senate to spend long days considering nominations instead of confirming them through unanimous consent agreements.
But there were some bicameral legislative accomplishments. Both chambers agreed on a five-year farm bill and reforms to the Department of Veterans Affairs after agency employees were found to have tried covering up medical claims backlogs.
However, Rep. Pete GallegoPete P. GallegoTexas Dem seeks 2016 rematch for House Former Texas rep. eyes comeback Immigration action jolts '16 races MORE (D-Texas) said those bipartisan deals were few and far between.
“When Congress puts party labels aside, like we did on VA reform, we can accomplish some great things for the American people. But those occasions were far too rare,” Gallego said.