Following a Congress that passed laws affecting more Americans than any since the “Great Society” legislation of the 1960s, U.S. lawmakers by comparison this year are taking a breather.
Since the newly seated, divided 112th Congress began in January, 13 measures have been signed into law by President Barack Obama. Four of those cut spending and keep the government funded through this fiscal year. A couple of bills named federal courthouses, and the remainder were mostly temporary extensions of existing programs.
“Perhaps after gorging itself in the 111th Congress, the 112th is a time for fasting,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
The reasons include fundamental policy differences between a Republican-run House and a Democratic-controlled Senate in Washington. Within weeks of convening, the House passed a repeal of the health-care overhaul that is Obama’s major domestic achievement. The repeal was defeated in the Senate. In April, a House-passed bill to stop federal funding for Planned Parenthood similarly lost in the Senate.
There is also a group of freshman House Republicans elected on promises to limit the scope and reach of the federal government. The House has passed 41 bills this year and about 80 resolutions, according to the Library of Congress.
The most significant legislation enacted this year cut federal spending by $38.5 billion to avert a government shutdown in a last-minute budget deal among House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Obama.
Lawmakers are now consumed with reaching bipartisan accord on cutting long-term deficits as part of a plan to raise the U.S. debt limit. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said his party wants “significant” cuts in spending and no tax increases as a condition for lifting the limit.
The government reached the $14.3 trillion debt limit yesterday and will run out of options for avoiding default by early August, according to projections by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
That battle is crowding out progress on other issues, said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.
“It’s going to be hard to get that done, and it’s hard to get them to focus on something outside of that,” said Thurber. “The politics of cutting the budget is really tough and it’s very slow.”
By comparison, the last time the U.S. had divided government in 2007 and 2008, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and Republican George W. Bush was president, there were 460 bills signed into law over the two-year period, according to the Senate website.
The last time House and Senate control was split between the two parties for an entire year was under Republican President Ronald Reagan in the 99th Congress in 1985 and 1986, when Democrats controlled the House and Republicans had the Senate. In the first 12 months of that Congress, 240 bills were signed into law, and another 424 were enacted the next year.
Among that Congress’s accomplishments was passage of the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act that set annual targets for reduced deficits over five years and required automatic spending cuts if the goals weren’t met.
Health Care Overhaul
In the most recent Congress, when Democrats controlled both Houses, lawmakers worked with Obama to revamp the nation’s health-care system, spend more than $1.67 trillion to revive an economy on verge of a depression and end an almost two-decade ban against openly gay men and women serving in the military.
Over the two-year session, more than 380 bills were signed into law.
“With the caveat that we’re not very far into the 112th, Congress doesn’t have much to show for itself, beyond the delayed enactment of government spending bills,” said Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington whose research focuses on Congress.
“Ideological disagreements between the parties and purely partisan incentives seem to be putting compromise out of reach,” Binder said.
Corporate Tax Overhaul
Asked about potential agreement in Congress on legislation outside the debt limit, Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said there could be compromises on energy legislation, trade and a corporate tax overhaul “where you lower the rate and cut the loopholes.”
Whether this Congress is shaping up as a do-nothing group is a matter of perspective, said Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
“If you don’t think that focusing on debt and deficit reduction in the middle of a recession is a good thing, it would be hard to conclude that this has been a successful Congress,” he said.
On the other hand, “if you believe these are the top issues of the day, even with limited legislation you could conclude that Congress has shifted the terms of debate and pushed Obama to focus on a very different agenda than where he started,” Zelizer said.
Senate Republican leader McConnell sounded a note of optimism about what can be accomplished in a divided government. He cited legislation to strengthen Social Security under Reagan and to overhaul the welfare system under Democratic President Bill Clinton, when each presided over a divided government.
“Look, divided government, when neither party controls the entire government, is the best time, the best time, and some would argue the only time when you can do really big stuff,” McConnell said at a May 12 news conference after Obama met with Republican senators.
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