In Our View: 'Do-Nothing Congress'

Shutdown stands as federal lawmakers' most memorable moment in 2013

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When the most memorable moments of your year are a government shutdown, a couple of filibusters, and a 9 percent approval rating … then it hasn't been a stellar year.

Such is the predicament facing the members of Congress as they near the end of 2013. The House of Representatives plans to adjourn by Dec. 13; the Senate hopes to get out of town by Dec. 20. Odds are that they will have little to show for their efforts by the time the legislative season comes to a close. Since the start of the 113th Congress last January, legislators have passed fewer than 60 laws. By one count, only 44 of them have been substantive bills, making 2013 one of the least productive years in memory. The yearly average from 1999 to 2012 was 70 meaningful bills being sent to the president.

Oh, it's not that Congress has done nothing; it's just that most bills have been noteworthy for their lack of noteworthiness. For example, various buildings, bridges and even a tax code were named after luminaries of varying importance. Lawmakers designated the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge on Interstate 70 in St. Louis, in honor of the St. Louis baseball icon who died this year. They also declared that the air traffic control center in Nashua, N.H., will now be known as the "Patricia Clark Boston Air Route Traffic Control Center," in honor of Clark's 50 years of service to the center. And they renamed section 219(c) of the Internal Revenue Code the Kay Bailey Hutchison Spousal IRA, honoring the former Texas senator who was one of the section's authors.

But as far as substantial accomplishments, this likely will be remembered as the "do-nothing Congress." That is not necessarily a bad thing. All too often in Washington, D.C., "spending money" is viewed as being synonymous with "accomplishment," and Congressional inaction was somewhat beneficial this year. The Bush tax cuts on the wealthy expired in January, and the budget ax known as sequestration fell in March and trimmed federal spending. Slightly higher revenues and slightly lower spending . . . by doing nothing, Congress has reduced the deficit, although that deficit remains at unsustainable levels.

While a do-nothing Congress might be in the best interests of the people at times, the people clearly would prefer for at least some leadership to come out of Washington. The current 9 percent approval rating for Congress is the lowest ever measured by a Gallup Poll, and lawmakers' 2013 average for the poll has been a dismal 14 percent approval rating. We remain skeptical as to whether that will translate into votes come next year's election, but for now the public is not happy.

With that in mind, Congress has two opportunities to make a bit of a mark this year. A farm bill that would guide the nation's agricultural policy and a comprehensive immigration bill continue to echo in the chambers. Much of the funding in the farm bill expires Dec. 31, but disagreements abound over cuts to the food stamp program, which typically is lumped in with the bill. The president has had little luck in gaining traction on immigration reform, with House Republicans vowing to tackle the various issues in piecemeal fashion. So far, they have not offered any pieces of their solution.

And so, legislation that could be important continues to languish as the Congressional year moves closer to an undistinguished legacy. With only a couple weeks to go, it appears unlikely that lawmakers will do anything that tops the government shutdown on their list of accomplishments.