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.”
Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden falters in pledge to strengthen US alliances 20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home MORE (R-Ariz.), who has served in the Senate since 1987, said the performance of the 113th Congress had been, in a word, “disgraceful.”
“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 Mason ReidDemocrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Biden looks to climate to sell economic agenda Justice Breyer issues warning on remaking Supreme Court: 'What goes around comes around' MORE (D-Nev.) and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump seeking challenger to McConnell as Senate GOP leader: report Budget chairman: Debt ceiling fight 'a ridiculous position to be in' Buckle up for more Trump, courtesy of the Democratic Party MORE (Ky.) have battled with procedural moves, moving legislating to a standstill.
“This place has to start working again,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State Tell our troops: 'Your sacrifice wasn't in vain' Sunday shows preview: Bombing in Kabul delivers blow to evacuation effort; US orders strikes on ISIS-K 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 MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranThe Hill's Top Lobbyists 2020 Lawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Star-studded cast to perform play based on Mueller report 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 Pena GallegoER doctor chosen to lead Hispanic Caucus 4 Texas GOP congressional primary runoffs to watch GOP candidate scores upset win in Texas state Senate runoff 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.