By Alexander Bolton - 03/10/14 06:00 AM EDT
Democrats and Republicans alike say the 113th Congress is shaping up to be the worst ever.
Congress has in some ways already closed for business until after the mid-term election. Any laws made between now and November will be minor.
President Obama’s “year of action” has started slowly and could end up as a punchline. Congressional approval ratings have hit all-time lows.
The relationships between congressional Republicans and Obama as well as between Democratic and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill lack the indispensable element of trust.
The most memorable action taken by this Congress was last year’s shutdown.
It is not that passing lots of laws necessarily makes a “good Congress,” and many people would argue that the opposite is true. But even measures that both parties’ leaders want to get done, such as immigration reform, tax reform and transportation legislation have scant chance of reaching Obama’s desk.
House Democrats and Senate Republicans are both using this inaction to persuade voters to give them control of their respective chambers.
“It’s certainly the worst Congress since I’ve been in Congress,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who was first elected in 1972 and is retiring at year’s end. “We’ve gotten very little done.”
Waxman said Congress is the most partisan it has been during his 40-year tenure.
“It would be hard to find a worse one, for sure,” said Richard Baker, the Senate’s first historian.
Some Republicans say the lack of action in Congress is a positive because it has slowed federal spending growth.
“I tell people, we’re not getting anything done and that’s good,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said shortly after the 2012 election that he was “confident” Congress and the White House would reach a deal on comprehensive immigration reform. A year later, he scaled back expectations dramatically and accused Obama of being untrustworthy on the subject.
While some claim that was an excuse for inaction, others note that the president promised and failed to change Washington’s gridlock culture.
Some say he has made it worse.
Coburn said he still wants to reach a grand bargain to slow the growth of entitlement programs. Obama, however, has shown no interest in pushing his fellow Democrats to compromise, he said.
“That requires the president to lead and he’s not willing to lead,” Coburn said.
GOP sources say Boehner remains committed to immigration reform but is reluctant to provoke a Tea Party rebellion in an election year.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) warned that any Republican pushing a reform bill including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants “should go ahead and put a ‘Harry Reid for Majority Leader’ bumper sticker on their car.”
Tax reform fleetingly seemed another possible area of common ground.
Former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) voiced optimism throughout last year, but could not bridge the divide between their parties.
Aides familiar with the talks say Reid (D-Nev.) and Boehner did not share the chairmen’s enthusiasm for a deal because they worried about angering their core liberal and conservative constituencies.
“You start out wanting to do something on policy, but things get drawn back to politics,” said a source familiar with the negotiations.
Party leaders also concurred that America’s crumbling infrastructure must be fixed. Yet they cannot agree where to find the money necessary to pay for it.
Boehner initially wanted to use revenues from oil drilling. Dems shot that down amid outcry from environmentalists. Some Republicans also balked over the plan’s scope and cost.
The Highway Trust Fund could run out of money by August and Boehner recently admitted he has no solution.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of Congress in history, said he could not remember another Congress that was less productive.
“We only passed 55, 57 bills. That indicates a very low level of productivity,” Dingell said.
When he announced his retirement last month after 59 years of service, Dingell told The New York Times the House had become “obnoxious.”
Dingell said party leaders have taken over the legislative process and shunted aside the committees. As a result, political calculation now takes precedence over bipartisan problem solving.
“Everything has been moved to the Speaker’s office and the business of the House is transacted without any transparency or any opportunity for members to improve the business of the House,” he said.
Dingell said this Congress has accomplished even less than the 80th Congress, which then-President Harry Truman famously dubbed the “Do-Nothing Congress.”
That Congress passed 900 bills, far more than the current one is expected to approve.
The 113th Congress passed fewer substantial laws in its first session than any other Congress in the last 20 years, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.
Drew DeSilver, who conducted the Pew analysis, said Congress enacted only 62 substantive laws in 2013.
The most productive first year of a Congress in the last two decades was 2003, when the Republican-controlled Senate and House enacted 144 substantive laws, according to Pew.
Baker, the former Senate historian, said you have to reach back to the Congresses of 1907, or the late 1850s, to find legislative sessions that matched the current one in vitriol and lack of cooperation.
He noted the legislative gridlock of 1907 led to the adoption of the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of senators.
The sessions of the late 1850s preceded the Civil War.
Although just beyond its halfway point, the history of the 113th Congress is already littered with lowlights, most notably the 16-day government shutdown in October.v Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who was first elected to the House in 1974 and the Senate in 1984, warned that Congress had reached a level of acrimony not seen since before the Civil War.
“We are at one of the most dangerous points in our history right now. Every bit as dangerous as the break-up of the Union before the Civil War,” he said on the Senate floor.
Another low point occurred when Reid changed the Senate’s filibuster rule with a simple-majority vote, flouting the traditional requirement of a two-thirds majority. Reid said Republican obstruction forced his hand while Republicans accused him of destroying the fabric of the chamber.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is serving his fifth six-year Senate term, said the rules change, known as the nuclear option, makes this Congress stand out in its sheer awfulness.
“What makes this Congress different for me and really causes me great concern is when they exercised the nuclear option,” McCain said. “The animosities generated by that are very deep, but also I believe they fundamentally change the way the Senate has worked.”
McCain called the shutdown a “disaster” for his party. What saved the GOP, he said, was the awful rollout of the Affordable Care Act.
“Republicans can thank their lucky stars the ObamaCare failure came along. We were sinking in the polls, like rocks,” he said.
David Mayhew, a professor of political science at Yale University, pointed to the debates over ObamaCare as one cause of inaction.
“The subject has been dominating the domestic politics for several years and nobody can get over it. It’s really quite unusual. It’s bogging them down,” he said.