WASHINGTON — Members of Congress feel mighty proud of themselves this week, mainly because they appear to be avoiding a government shutdown — an outcome taken as an actual accomplishment in this turbulent and acrimonious legislature. But by the end of this week, lawmakers plan to leave town and not return until after the election, leaving behind a staggering pile of bills, many of pressing importance to voters across the nation.
The 112th Congress is set to enter the Congressional record books as the least productive body in a generation, passing a mere 173 public laws as of last month. That was well below the 906 enacted from January 1947 through December 1948 by the body President Harry S. Truman referred to as the “do-nothing” Congress, and far fewer than even a single session of many prior Congresses.
Partisanship and process have impeded measures that have traditionally been easy-peasy affairs — like the farm bill, or a measure to protect women against domestic violence — as well as those that have an impact on national security, for instance a bill to combat cybercrimes and a bipartisan measure to finance the military. A measure to shore up the ailing postal system might as well have been marked return to sender. A broadly supported measure that would normalize trade relations with Russia stalled.
Appropriations bills, once the central function of the legislative branch, have been ditched in favor of short-term spending measures that do little more than keep the lights on.
After the election, when the makeup of the White House and the next Congress are known, there will be a lame-duck session during which myriad tax issues will be tackled, or, somehow punted into the next year.
Both sides want to undo impending cuts to the military and other parts of government that resulted from an agreement last summer to raise the debt ceiling. The Republican-led House has passed a measure that has no shot in the Senate, because it relies on cuts to other domestic programs opposed by majority Democrats.
As such, Congress is about to recess not with a victorious bang, but rather with a bleat of resignation.
“It’s very frustrating to have worked on legislation that really matters to our country like the cybersecurity bill and legislation to save the Postal Service and just have them gather dust,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine.
“It’s also extraordinary,” she said, “at a time when we have a $16 trillion debt and we are facing the threat of enormous tax increases plus mindless across-the-board cuts, that Congress is unable to even pass a budget. This has been a very disappointing session with few accomplishments.”
In the House, the Republican freshmen are humbled, Representative Paul D. Ryan, their budget guru, floats around the United States on a campaign plane as Mitt Romney’s running mate, their appropriators are handcuffed and sulking, and their speaker is still hamstrung.
Across the Rotunda, Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and majority leader, seems content to achieve little, both as a way of avoiding filibusters and embarrassing votes for incumbents up for re-election, as well long floor proceedings that serve only to keep members off the campaign trail. (To be totally fair, before leaving the Senate might entertain a measure that would, among other things, make it easier to bring home polar bears shot in Canada.)
In that chamber, too, appropriators have been disabled, with leaders using the excuse that the House will not negotiate in good faith by using the same budget numbers. They have been somewhat stymied by the White House, which also threatened to veto such bills if the House does not comply with its demands.
Government tends to be very messy when it is divided, and much Congressional activity in past decades has focused on increasing spending and the creation of government programs, both anathemas in the current Republican-controlled House. Further, in recent years, Congress has moved to pass fewer, but more encompassing laws.
“Individually, the Senate and the House have been very productive,” said Don Ritchie, the Senate historian, pointing to a bipartisan farm bill that has passed the Senate and myriad antiregulatory measures in the House. “But constitutionally none of that becomes law if they haven’t been able to agree with each other in a final version.”
On the House side, leaders have had trouble finding support for some major legislation this year, even bills that have come flying out of their own committees with bipartisan backing.
For example, while the Senate passed a bipartisan version of the farm bill, the House does not have the votes for its own bill, largely because many Republican members do not support its level of spending. Many Democrats have also resisted cuts to the food stamps program in the bill.
This inaction has led to a petition circulated by Democrats but signed by many Republicans willing to buck the leadership that would force House leaders to bring the farm bill to the floor anyway. This demonstrates the increasing political trouble that inaction on the farm bill has caused for members from farm states, like the Dakotas and Iowa, and divisions within both parties over how to move forward.
In the Senate, Democrats have closed down much of the longstanding process of allowing amendments to bills, which has enraged Republicans, who then often turn those bills away via filibuster.
“The Senate has produced bipartisan bills on issues from farm policy to postal reform to China currency,” said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Senate Democratic leadership. “But it takes two chambers to pass a law, and the other side of the building considers compromise a dirty word.”
Democrats insist this is because many Republicans, notably Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, bring forward too many amendments that are designed to embarrass Democrats, or take too much floor time, or are irrelevant, like measures to take away aid from Egypt, a Paul specialty.
“There has been way too much politics injected into the work that is going on in the Senate,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia. “We’ve been spinning our wheels all year.”