Why this could be Congress' least productive year ever

More evidence that the U.S. government has ceased to be functional

(Image credit: (Win McNamee/Getty Images))

With just a handful of days left on the legislative calendar in 2013, Congress is on track to have its least productive year ever. Since January, lawmakers have passed fewer than 60 public bills, a record low that eclipses the dysfunction of the mid-1990s, when President Bill Clinton faced off against Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.).

The House returned from Thanksgiving break on Monday, but will only work until Dec. 13 before leaving for the holidays. The Senate won’t resume work until Dec. 9 and will wrap up its session on Dec. 20, leaving just five days of overlap to hammer out any legislative compromises between the two chambers. Given that small window, it’s highly unlikely that an 11th-hour flurry of activity could reverse the dismal course Congress has set for itself this year.

So much has been left undone. Support for immigration reform, which seemed to have momentum thanks to the the decisive role Latino voters played in the 2012 election, has fizzled in the House even though the Senate passed a bipartisan measure in June. Two dozen climate bills aimed at either reducing greenhouse gas emissions or adapting to the changes associated with global warming have failed to move forward. Dozens of federal appointees, including several judgeships, remain unfilled. Congress hasn’t agreed on a budget in four years, relying instead on continuing resolutions to keep the government functioning.

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Much of the gridlock can be blamed on the filibuster, the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to end debate on a bill or nominee. In recent years, the filibuster has been increasingly used to halt presidential nominations to key positions and gum up legislation that would otherwise pass with a simple majority. Since 2006, cloture has been invoked about 400 times, which is more than the 70-year period between 1917 (when cloture was created) and the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. (It’s important to note that cloture is sometimes invoked to get a sense for how members will vote on a particular issue, but that doesn’t explain the surge over the last seven years.)

But it’s also a function of the divisions between the establishment and Tea Party wings of the Republican Party in the GOP-lead House. Throughout most of the year, the Tea Party faction has driven the debate around funding the government, demanding deeper cuts to programs like food stamps than Democrats are willing to accept. The Republican caucus, which has been pulled rightward on budget issues, forced a shutdown in October when it delivered its latest ultimatum on ObamaCare: Scrap the president’s signature domestic achievement or we won’t fund the government. Lawmakers narrowly averted defaulting on the national debt in the same month thanks to a last-minute deal that raised the debt ceiling until early next year. So much extra time has been spent working on routine business that other priorities have been crowded out.

Of course, that’s not to say that this do-nothing Congress has done absolutely nothing. During the first six months of this year, Congress passed a total of 13 bills. (To put that in perspective, the 94th and 95th Congresses from the mid-1970s had 70 bills signed by their first summer.) Lawmakers reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act and the Pandemic and All-Hazards Act. In early January, two months after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast, they temporarily increased the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s borrowing authority.

Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously to the four girls who died in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing five decades ago. Even though they couldn’t agree on how to avoid sequestration, lawmakers were able to pass a law that allowed the Federal Aviation Administration to remain fully staffed and operational.

But that's about it. And with next year likely to be dominated by the midterm elections, it's a good bet that Congress will be even less productive.

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Laura Colarusso is a freelance journalist based in Boston. She has previously written for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, the Washington Monthly and The Daily Beast.