Status Report On The 113th Congress

This is one of a series of posts from the Congressional Update

Marian Currinder opened the Congressional Update with a status report on the 113th Congress. The current Congress, she points out, has been defined by its dividedness and lack of legislative traction. The 112th Congress was the least productive Congress since the Civil War. The 113th is on track to be even worse.

What the first session of the 113th Congress did do:
– Adopted a budget deal in December
– Senate limited the use of the filibuster
– Reauthorized defense programs
– Reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act
– Appropriated $60.2 billion in Hurricane Sandy disaster aid

What the first session of the 113th Congress didn’t do:
– Overhauled agriculture subsidies and SNAP
– Dealt with immigration policy
– Fixed the Postal Service
– Expedited the process for the Keystone XL
– Addressed the minimum wage
– Constrained the NSA

An important pending change is that two committee chairs are on their way out. Max Baucus, chair of Senate Finance, has been named ambassador to China and will leave once confirmed. Dave Camp, is in his final year of chairmanship in Ways and Means.

Many people are projecting that the 2014 legislative agenda will be primarily ‘small ball’. It’s an election year and big deals already tend to get bogged down in the partisan environment. The substantial effort and time it already takes to pass legislation will compressed by the upcoming elections.

So how did we get to this state of affairs? Answering the question ‘why Congress is the way it is” may be a step toward addressing our current situation.

Marian points out three major causes of polarization:

1.) Politicians represent constituencies and they pay attention to the factions of active supporters. They need to pay attention to the people who vote and the people most likely to vote, according to Gallup, are from the edges of the political spectrum.


2.) Individual lawmakers are responsible for their votes but are not directly accountable to the policy outcomes of those votes.

3,) Most people identify strongly with one party which makes for a very competitive environment. Each party wants to be in the majority. This is where leadership comes in because they are working toward defending or gaining a majority. If leadership deems that “strategic disagreement” is the best way to defend or gain a majority, they will do it.

These three points drive home the point that you can’t separate policy from the politics of Congress.

A version of this talk is also given in the Congressional Operations Seminar.
Next up at the Congressional Update: “Will the Budget and Appropriations Process Return In 2014?

Sam Lovett is Communications Manager at the Government Affairs Institute