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NAW News

An Overview of Congress

- January 2014

The first session of the 113th Congress – a recap:

Congress has a very well-deserved reputation for being unable to get anything done – gridlock and stalemate have been the hallmarks of Washington for the last several years. Ironically, the record of the first session of the 113th Congress both affirms and contradicts that description.

Congress began and ended the year passing bipartisan fiscal measures. In January they passed the “fiscal cliff” legislation dealing with taxes and spending; they closed the year in December passing a Congressional budget and spending bill – the first budget passed by both houses of Congress since 2009. (See our separate staff reports on taxes and fiscal matters.)

Despite those bipartisan accomplishments, statistically the just-completed 2013 session of Congress was among the most unproductive in history. Fewer than 75 bills were signed into law by the President in 2013, the lowest number in decades (according to some sources, the lowest number in U.S. history; your staff reports author did not personally check the record of the previous 224 sessions of Congress to verify that statistic). This Congress is also well on its way to setting a record for the fewest recorded votes taken.

It is not necessarily bad for the country when Congress is NOT enacting bills; the well-known quote says it best: “No man’s life or property is safe when the legislature is in session.” (This famous quote is often attributed to Mark Twain but credit probably rightfully belongs to Judge Gideon J. Tucker.)

There are a number of major policy issues on which Congress did not complete action in 2013, among them: immigration reform, tax reform, gun control, climate control/cap and trade, campaign finance reform, the Marketplace Fairness Act (internet sales tax), the long-term fiscal crisis, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline (or any other significant energy issues), labor legislation, tort reform. There’s plenty there for everyone to either lament or cheer about.

But it’s also worth noting that Congress has to act to repeal laws, so the inability to get anything done also means previous legislative damage isn’t being undone. For example, the GOP-controlled House efforts to repeal all or parts of Dodd/Frank and ObamaCare – including repeal of the medical device tax, the employer mandate, and the “health insurance tax” – all fell victim to the gridlock when the Democrat-controlled Senate refused to take up any of those measures.

Congress did act on a few substantive matters other than the fiscal and budget issues which are its primary responsibility: student loan legislation, Hurricane Sandy relief, veterans’ bills, the Violence Against Women Act, and the “Drug Quality and Security Act” (a major issue and huge victory for NAW’s pharmaceutical distribution members), to name a few.

But also among the 74 enacted laws were those specifying the size of Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins, awarding Congressional Gold Medals, dealing with fraudulent claims of military service, providing the “Freedom to Fish,” adding flu vaccines to the definition of taxable vaccines, acknowledging Vietnam Veterans donors, expediting TSA screening for disabled veterans, stabilizing reverse mortgages, dealing with the use of national parks or other public lands, providing “School Access to Emergency Epinephrine,” establishing safeguards for organ transplants, advancing the safety of small airplanes, dealing with the risks of premature births . . . along with the bills naming something after someone.

These bills cover a fairly wide range of topics, but all have something in common: they are non-controversial and do not address any of the major issues facing the country today. As important as stabilizing reverse mortgages may be, that stabilization does nothing about our insolvent entitlement programs, the stagnant economic recovery, millions of Americans remaining unemployed, staggering deficits and public debt.

The second session of the 113th Congress – what’s in store this year:

The record of accomplishments in Washington on major policy issues in 2013 was meager, and most pundits doubt that significant action on many controversial issues will be taken in 2014.

The doubts are well founded. The pace of legislation often slows in a federal election year, especially when we have divided government in Washington as we do today. And when the upcoming election holds out the promise – or the threat, depending on where you stand – of producing a significant shift in the balance of power, the pace of legislation can grind to a halt as that election nears. But predicting what Congress will do – or forecasting election results – is an inexact science.

Last October, when Congressional Republicans were paying a steep price for the unpopular government shutdown, no one was predicting that the 2014 elections would increase GOP power in Washington. Today, only a few months later, the catastrophically bad launch of Obamacare has shifted the political calculus dramatically, and polls show that prospects for the GOP not only holding their majority in the House but recapturing the majority in the Senate are very good.

That possibility actually causes something of a conundrum for Congressional Republicans. The House GOP majority has good reason to want to chalk up some legislative accomplishments on which to campaign so they can convince disenchanted voters that the GOP can, in fact, govern.

The Senate GOP minority, on the other hand, may not be inclined to help incumbent Democrat Senate candidates chalk up significant accomplishments, since GOP hopes of reclaiming the reins of power in the Senate hang on defeating those vulnerable Democrats.

The test case for whether the House need to be seen as capable of governing can translate into legislative accomplishments may well rest on the immigration issue.

Last June the Senate Democrat majority passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill and sent it to the House. Only 14 Senate Republicans supported the bill; most were firmly opposed. There was virtually no chance that the House GOP would take up the comprehensive Senate bill, and most assumed that conservative opposition would prevent action on even small-ball reform proposals in the House.

However, last month Speaker Boehner added an immigration policy expert to his staff, prompting speculation that he would after all push for some form of immigration legislation in the House. In early January, he more clearly signaled that he would try to move “step by step” immigration reform measures.

Whether the Speaker can succeed in chalking up immigration reform as a legislative accomplishment remains in doubt, with multiple factors in play:

  • Can the Speaker bring his anti-immigration-reform conservative members to his side, and if not will he again – as he did on the year-end budget compromise – move legislation over their objections? 

  • Will the Senate GOP minority go along with House-passed “step by step” bills, or will they oppose all reform measures and attempt to muster sufficient votes to kill Senate action on House-passed legislation? 

  • Will the Senate Democratic majority go along with a modest House initiative, knowing they will have to share credit with the House GOP in the process, or will they insist on more comprehensive reform (that cannot pass the House) and work with the GOP minority to kill a House-passed bill?

  • Will President Obama support and sign “step by step” House bills as a step in the right direction, or will he see it as more politically advantageous to continue to paint the GOP as anti-Hispanic, and oppose any House legislation?

At this point, in the first few weeks of the 2014 session, most pundits still predict another year of minimal Congressional action and significant gridlock. Most still believe that ideological and political divisions will stand in the way of enactment of big-picture legislation. But stay tuned: if immigration reform moves through the house, all the crystal balls may be proven wrong. And if that happens, who knows….maybe the Speaker and the President can renew their negotiations on a fiscal “grand bargain.”