Every lawmaker and staffer who’s about to head home for the holidays knows to expect to spend the break answering some version of the same dreaded and derisive question: What’s it like, being a part of the least productive Congress in modern times?
Here are two simple numbers for prolonging the uncomfortable conversation: 8 and 22.
Assuming the Senate does everything it’s expected to do this week, eight undeniably consequential things actually will have been completed at the Capitol this year. But another 22 relatively big legislative goals — some set by one party, but plenty claimed by both sides — will have been left at various points along the wayside.
The narrative’s been set for months: Record gridlock will be the “historic” hallmark affixed to the first session of the 113th Congress. Yes, there are the easy caveats: There are always limits to making laws in a divided government. Some of the most important issues of our time are too complex to solve quickly. Writing legislation is not necessarily the best way to address a national problem. And not all bills are created equal; renaming a post office is, of course, not as credit-worthy as mandating peace in our time.
Still, the 10-year extension of the ban on plastic firearms, which President Barack Obama signed a week ago, was only the 57th public law added to the books this year. And with the House gone for the year and the post-“nuclear” Senate in no mood to compromise on the little things during this final week, no more than a handful more measures will become statutes before 2014.
There’s no way the total will reach 90 — the figure for 2011, which was the smallest annual legislative output since before World War II. As for the apples-to-apples comparisons to years when presidents were starting their second terms dealing with a divided Congress, the 2013 number will look even more meager. Bill Clinton signed 153 laws in 1997, Ronald Reagan wielded his pen 240 times in 1985, and Richard Nixon affixed his signature to 247 measures in 1973.
Add to this numbers crunched over the weekend by the New York Times, which calculated that the House’s legislative weeks lasted an average of just 28 hours this year, while the Senate is on course to have the fewest days with roll calls a non-election year since 1991 — just more than 100, depending on how this week plays out.
For all the people who will be forced to spend the next two weeks defending their role in the dysfunction — to their constituents or their in-laws — here’s a clip-and-save list of prompts for boasting about or deriding what did and did not get done in 2013.
The 8 Most Important Things the 113th Congress Did
- The budget deal erased $45 billion in across-the-board cuts to domestic and military programs that were set to take effect in January, and another $19 billion due a year later, while leaving in place about $140 billion of the sequester for both this fiscal year and the next one. The additional discretionary spending would be more than offset by projected savings and non-tax revenue increases worth $85 billion in the next decade.
- The "nuclear option," pushed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democrats changed the Senate rules to eliminate the supermajority requirement for limiting debate on executive branch and most judicial nominations — from three-fifths of all senators to a simple majority of those present. It’s the biggest limitation on the powers of the minority party and the most fundamental alteration to the way the Senate functions since 1975.
- Confirmation of four new judges to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit shifts the ideological balance on the nation’s second-most influential federal bench. When the year began, four active judges on the court were nominees of Republican presidents and three had been picked by Democrats.
- The student loan interest rate system was revamped, principally by linking the rates to the government’s own cost of borrowing before the start of every school year, while also setting new caps. The compromise did away with a fixed interest rate that Congress had been under pressure to lower.
- The reach of the Violence Against Women Act was expanded so that gay and lesbian victims may benefit from the law’s legal assistance, transitional housing, law enforcement training and hotline programs, and the rules were eased for using tribal courts to prosecute non-Native Americans accused of sex crimes on reservations.
- Janet L. Yellen will likely be confirmed as the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve, the single-most-influential economic policymaking position in government. The Fed vice chairwoman for the past three years, she will be only the 15th person to wield the gavel in the central bank’s 100 year history.
- The Superstorm Sandy measure provided $50.5 billion to help local governments and individuals with recovery and reconstruction. After one of the most damaging storms ever hit the nation’s largest metropolitan area, the emergency aid was delayed 13 weeks because of disputes over whether the package was too generous or should be matched with offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.
- The defense authorization bill will likely be enacted for a 53rd consecutive year, a record of consistency unmatched by any other measure that’s supposed to be updated annually. The bill’s most notable feature is a package of provisions designed to stanch an epidemic of sexual assault in the armed forces.
- No money was appropriated for any programs or agencies at the start of the new budget year, leading to a suspension of nonessential federal services for the first 16 days of October, the first such partial government shutdown since early 1996.
- The Affordable Care Act is still standing. House GOP efforts to repeal or make any substantive changes to the 2010 law also known as Obamacare hit a dead end in the Senate.
- Congress again failed to limit benefits provided by Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, the biggest federal entitlement programs. Their projected annual growth rates pose the most substantial challenge to controlling annual federal deficits and the accumulated debt in the next two decades.
- Calls to simplify the federal tax code by reducing the number of exemptions, exclusions and expenditures, or extend a collection of routine and relatively non-controversial tax provisions again went unheeded.
- An expansion of the national background check system for prospective gun buyers, restrictions on the size of ammunition magazines and other efforts to tighten federal gun control laws in response to a series of high-profile mass shootings never made it out of the Senate.
- No substantive changes to immigration law — either by expanding border security or by creating a path to legal residency or citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the United States without documentation — were sent to the president.
- Proposals to combat climate change by reducing the national carbon footprint failed to advance, even as the scientific consensus solidified that human activity has been responsible for most of the global warming in recent decades.
- The No Child Left Behind law, seen by both parties as in need of a rewrite, has been due for an update since 2007.
- Zero reductions to crop subsidies for farmers and food stamp benefits for poor people were enacted as part of an attempted rewrite of the multiyear farm bill, which lapsed in 2012.
- Limits on the roles of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the national housing market, either by ending or curtailing the government’s role as a guarantor of mortgages, did not advance.
- The National Security Agency’s collection of records of civilians’ telephone calls or other electronic communication remain administration policy, despite the furor over the breadth of the NSA spying programs.
- Despite intense debate over boosting sanctions on Iran and launching a strike on Syria to punish its use of chemical weapons, Congress did not proscribe any alterations to foreign policy.
- The Senate voted to prohibit businesses with more than 15 employees from discriminating against gays and lesbians, but the House never took it up.
- The Postal Service has yet to be overhauled so it can become financially viable in an era of declining mail volume.
- The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25 an hour, where it has been fixed since July 2009.
- States are still not allowed to require that online retailers outside their borders to collect sales taxes on goods purchased by their residents.
- The 35 sometimes duplicative programs providing employment and job-training aid to the states have not been streamlined.
- The formula for limiting Medicare payments to physicians, which has been routinely ignored since its 1997 creation with a series of annual “doc fix” bills, has not been replaced.
- The Voting Rights Act has not been updated in response to a Supreme Court decision overturning a central component.
- Congress has not outlawed most abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, the new top legislative cause of the National Right to Life Committee.
- Regulatory and environmental reviews of federal water projects have not been expedited, nor has there been a revamp of the funding system for dredging and harbor maintenance.
- Jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed were not extended for 28 weeks beyond the usual expiration after six months.