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The Sad Saga of Congress Isn't Finished Yet

Aug 26, 2014 | By Carolyn Burstein, NETWORK Communications Fellow

Recent Vox reports have included charts proving that Congress is indeed getting worse. One, from a Brookings Institution report, showed the percent of important legislative issues in gridlock in each Congress since 1947 rising from less than 30% to 70%.

Another, from a Gallup Poll study, showed that Congress is terribly unpopular. Since 1974, its popularity with the public has averaged between 30 and 40%, peaking at 84% in 2002 (a period of remarkable patriotism following 9/11) and flagging ever since. It recently reached the low teens, the lowest on record.

A third chart used data collected since 1879 to show that Congress is more polarized than it's been in over 100 years. Naturally, this polarization makes it nearly impossible for members of the two parties to collaborate on significant issues.

An additional chart, developed for Bloomberg, demonstrates that this Congress is the least productive in the postwar era, passing far fewer new laws than other Congresses.

And still another illustrates that despite the first four charts, congressional elections are more expensive than ever—based on data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.

While much of the data refers to the 112th Congress (since the 113th hasn’t ended yet), the criticisms still apply. As a matter of fact, if these charts contained data for the past two years, each chart might very well demonstrate a worsening situation.

Let's look first at the productivity of the present Congress. According to a Pew Research Center report issued at the end of July 2014, Congress had enacted a total of 142 laws, but only 108 of those enactments were substantive pieces of legislation (does not include post office renamings, anniversary commemorations or other ceremonial laws), by far the lowest on record. At least the 112th Congress passed over 200 laws. And an August 1, 2014, NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll found that 75% of Americans agree that this present Congress has been unproductive. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), House Minority Whip, who has served in the last 16 Congresses said, "It's the least productive Congress in which I have served."

An August 4, 2014 article in the National Journal reminds us that optimism was running high at the initial sessions of the 113th as both parties anticipated a tax-code overhaul. "Fixing the tax code is one of my highest legislative priorities for this Congress," Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told the members of the Credit Union National Association in a speech in early 2013. Boehner even reserved the famed spot of "H.R. 1" for this package, but his promise was never kept.

Optimism returned in late 2013 when Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) reached a compromise that would lead to carefully drawn spending limits for 2014-15. Instead, Congress has not returned to regular budgeting with 12 annual spending bills this year, and has abandoned what everyone thought would be a smoother process.

Admittedly, these efforts have been overtaken by both gridlock and polarization within parties and between parties, tying the hands of those in Congress who are serious about their legislative mandate. Reams have been written about these issues over the past two years, and both gridlock and polarization have enjoyed the status of causation ever since. A June 2014 Pew study found that "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines -- and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive -- than at any point in the last two decades." Polarization has had a deep effect on the ability of the two parties to compromise. In fact, the Pew study found that both liberals and conservatives felt that an "ideal" compromise would achieve more of what they wanted than the other side got.

Hostility and intransigence have replaced willingness to compromise, and has played havoc with our legislative system. The sad fact is that some of those who are most intransigent wear it as a badge of honor. That is what happened to much potential legislation this past year. One example (many could be given—for example, immigration reform) is the tax-code reform earlier hailed by Speaker Boehner. Retiring Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp (R-MI), after a great deal of work on tax reform, got a very tepid reception from his own panel as well as from House leadership since several ideas contained compromises that would appeal to Democrats. Camp never produced an actual bill as he had anticipated. Nor, for that matter, did Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), despite many hearings and much work. House leadership was being influenced (or pushed) by radicals on the right, and any major tax reform will have to wait for another Congress.

Nor are all the problems of polarization restricted to the House. Since the passage of two major pieces of legislation, Comprehensive Immigration Reform over a year ago and the Farm Bill earlier this year, the Senate has also been mired in gridlock. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) nearly always prevents the GOP from offering amendments on bills, which angers Republicans, who have the power to block bills from passing. In addition, Reid changed the rules of the Senate to a simple majority instead of 60 votes for the president's nominees for judgeships and for Cabinet positions, a change known as the "nuclear option," which led to more bickering.

The foregoing assessment of the 113th Congress on the issues of productivity, gridlock, polarization and unpopularity matches quite well with the February 2014 appraisal of 40 academic experts brought together by The Center on Congress at Indiana University. They were drawn from universities nationwide and responded to online questions posed by the Director of Research for the Center on Congress for eight straight years.

Overall, they gave the current Congress a C- and delivered a rather pessimistic evaluation of its ability to function as a policymaking and legislative institution in our representative democracy.

Eighty percent of the experts gave Congress a D or F on its legislative record (its productivity). In open-ended questions the experts spoke of members of Congress engaged more in propaganda than in governance. They were also concerned about the clash of ideologies and hyperpartisan actions that prevented the kind of compromise necessary for the passage of legislation. A full 80% thought that polarization had increased over the past few years. They feared that Congress was perceived more as a venue for expressing competing ideological viewpoints than for focusing on data and evidence for influencing decisions. They doubted that members of Congress were keeping the role of special interests within proper bounds, especially because of the need to raise funds for reelection.

Consistently, the House was rated lower in its performance than the Senate. Unfortunately, that's not saying much because the Senate's grade was poor, a D, while the House received an F. These grades primarily referred to "keeping excessive partisanship in check."

At the same time, congressional elections are becoming more expensive. The Center for Responsive Politics maintains that, based on the fact that over $144 million has been spent on the 2014 mid-term elections as of August 1, 2014, it seems plausible that this election is on track to spend at least $1 billion, roughly the same amount as in 2012, although 2014 is not a presidential election year. Enough said.

One wonders how the House reached its nadir on August 8, 2014, the day it recessed for the summer break by writing legislation that dimmed all prospects for an even-handed bill that would deal with the humanitarian crisis of Central American children at our southern border. Let's recall that 2014 began optimistically with Speaker Boehner setting out to marginalize his vocal right-wing critics and tame the fissures that were growing in the GOP. Yet, by August these conservative radicals have been emboldened by bringing into a leadership position one of their own, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA), as a result of Eric Cantor's (R-VA) astounding defeat in the Virginia primary, and by authoring the Republican response to President Obama's request for funds to handle the terrible situation of the children.

On a chaotic day (August 8, 2014) some of the most conservative members of the Republican caucus drafted legislation that would prevent hearings before a judge for unaccompanied minors and would immediately phase out the president's executive order allowing children brought to this country as minors to remain here (usually referred to as the "Dream Act"). The bill would also prevent the expansion of the E.O. to other types of immigrants. There is no way this bill would pass the Senate, even if it passed the House.

Jonathan Weisman, a congressional reporter for the New York Times in an NPR interview indicated that Eric Cantor's defeat would lead to the House leadership moving more to the right and forestall the possibility of passing any significant legislation right through to the 2016 presidential election. If his prediction is correct, then maybe it's not a total loss that the House will only be in session for 12 days in September before they recess before the midterms. Maybe all that the House will have time for is to deal with agency appropriations bills, which have not yet been passed. Word is out that there will be another stopgap spending measure to prevent the government from running out of funding after September 30.

While there are numerous decisions that should be forthcoming in September from both houses of Congress, such as those required on miscellaneous tariffs, the Trade Adjustment Assistance program, re-chartering of the Export-Import Bank, the Internet Tax Freedom Act, the expiration of dozens of tax breaks, and a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform (from Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico), there is so much unfinished business facing the 113th Congress that it would be impossible to manage it all diligently. And this does not include the impasses that exist between different bills passed earlier in the House and Senate, such as those passed in late July 2014 on the Highway Trust Fund, that have to be resolved in a conference.

Those who are hoping for further congressional action during the 113th on such significant items as the minimum wage, long-term unemployment compensation, immigration reform, student debt and the like, will, more than likely, have to wait for a later Congress because they are forgetting who is driving the House's agenda and how partisan both houses of Congress have become.