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Analysis: Congress heads home with dubious distinction — far fewer laws than ‘Do Nothing Congress’

By William Douglas
McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON: Days before adjournment and the year-end holiday recess, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was hardly feeling the holiday spirit.

As usual, the Senate was limping through a slow legislative slog: passing a small-scale bipartisan budget agreement that averts another federal government shutdown and softens the blow of sequestration, meandering through a defense authorization bill and trudging through a slew of judicial and administrative nominations.

“The new good government standard is we didn’t shut the government down. We’re slapping ourselves on the back for not shutting the government down,” groused Graham. “Even when we try to be functional, we’re dysfunctional.”

When they wrapped up their business Friday, senators joined members of the House of Representatives in returning to their districts with a dubious achievement they’ll not likely brag about to their constituents: being part of one of the least productive Congresses ever.

The 113th Congress is heading home and into the history books with a record of legislative futility and slightly more than 57 bills signed into law. It’s on course to surpass the first session of the 104th Congress, which passed 88 bills into law, in terms of its low productivity.

Critics say the current Congress makes the 80th Congress — dismissively dubbed by President Harry S. Truman as the “Do Nothing Congress” — look like workaholics. That Congress enacted 395 public bills into law by the end of its first session, in December 1947, according to congressional records.

“By all objective measures, this is the worst Congress ever,” Tom Mann, a senior governance fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution, said of the 113th. “But there are two main things: Important matters not addressed and destructive things done, like October’s government shutdown. They did a lot of stuff of no consequence. All the important stuff, they couldn’t get done.”

The 113th Congress didn’t pass a single appropriations bill, a farm bill, immigration legislation, anything to change or improve health care or anything to curb the debt.

This isn’t to say that the 113th hasn’t done anything. The budget deal, approving a $50 billion aid package for states battered by Superstorm Sandy, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, passing legislation to keep the nation’s helium reserves open, and setting new rate structures for federal student loans, were among some of the first session’s major accomplishments.

Unable to achieve bipartisan consensus on big issues, the 113th Congress displayed a penchant for delaying action until the last minute or, in the case of October’s 16-day partial government shutdown, after it’s too late.

The short-term funding deal that reopened the government yielded a bipartisan House-Senate committee that produced a modest budget to keep the government operating through fiscal 2015.

While congratulating themselves for avoiding another shutdown fight with the deal crafted by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., lawmakers passed on dealing with the debt ceiling, potentially setting up another high-stakes fiscal fight in February or March.

“We kicked the can down the road one more time and missed the opportunity,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, a former White House budget director under President George W. Bush.