News Column

House GOP Staggers Toward Worst Session Ever

July 11, 2013
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The legislative zeal that drove House Republicans in the last Congress has evaporated and they are headed for one of the least accomplished years on record, according to the latest findings in The Washington Times' Legislative Futility Index.

That's a stark drop from the previous two years, when Republicans, fueled by tea party-inspired victories in 2010, amassed one of the better legislative records of recent years. But after suffering losses at the polls last year and the re-election of President Obama, House Republicans have stalled out, notching the fifth-slowest period of legislative business on record through the first six months of the year.

In the Senate, led by Democrats, things are even worse. Senators are on track for their second-slowest year ever. But that's not much of a change in a chamber where calcification has

become the norm and 2011 is the worst year on record, with 2012 now the third worst, supplanted by 2013.

Together, the two chambers have passed 15 bills that have been signed into law - the lowest total on record. It also signals little break in the bitter partisan fights of the past two years.

A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner declined to comment on the change in the House numbers. The Ohio Republican is preparing to lead his chamber through a thorny immigration debate, and with debt and spending fights looming in the fall.

Earlier this year, there were reasons for hope.

Both chambers were pursuing bipartisan investigations into administration malfeasance, and they were trying to strike deals on big issues such as immigration reform and a farm bill, which eluded them in the previous Congress. They began the year with the House passing bills to let tax rates rise for the wealthiest Americans, to send billions of dollars in federal aid to regions ravaged by Superstorm Sandy, and to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act - all approved in the House on the strength of Democrats' votes.

But House Republicans rebelled after those votes, warning their party leaders not to continue the practice of forcing what were chiefly Democratic priorities on the chamber.

"The overriding theme here is that on more and more issues, compromise appears to be a dirty word on their side of the aisle," said Drew Hammill, spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

He said that since Republicans won control of the chamber in the 2010 elections, it has lurched from crisis vote to crisis vote - cobbling together last-minute deals with the Senate and President Obama on spending and taxes. He said that produced legislative action in 2011 and 2012, though it wasn't the best way to run the chamber.

Recently, however, Republicans seem to be shying away from seeking those deals, Mr. Hammill said.

"I think what's unique now and what we'll see this fall is that trend looks likely to continue, but there's also what increasingly appears to be a breakdown in keeping the trains running," he said.

The Times' Futility Index uses basic yardsticks such as time spent in session, number of pages compiled in the Congressional Record, number of bills passed and votes taken, as a proxy for activity.

Numbers come from the Resume of Congressional Activity compiled by House and Senate clerks at the end of each month and published in the Congressional Record. Those records stretch back to 1947 and cover the Civil Rights era, the flurry of post-Watergate activity and several changes of power between the parties.

At this point in 2012, the House had been in session for 452 hours, had amassed 4,657 pages of material in the Congressional Record and had 40 of its bills signed into law. Six months into 2011, it had been in session for 515 hours, had compiled 4,581 pages in the Congressional Record and had 14 bills signed into law.

This year, those figures are all lower - 380 hours in session, 4,178 pages of material in the Congressional Record and 11 bills enacted into law.

Even floor votes are down substantially, from 491 in 2011 to 449 last year, to 303 this year.

Some analysts cheered the lack of action all around, saying they felt better knowing Congress was accomplishing little.

"I'm pretty confident the republic would be significantly more secure if no member of Congress ever voted again, on anything, ever," said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist. "The idea that 'votes' get conflated with 'productivity' is ridiculous."

He said that is a lesson House Republicans seem to have learned over the previous two years, when they passed bills to cut spending, force more development of energy and cut taxes, only to have them stall in the divided Senate.

"There's a general sense now, and has been for some time, that there's zero point in the Republican majority in the House beating their heads to send legislation over to the Senate that's just going to die," Mr. McKenna said. "It makes a lot more sense for the Senate to hash out whatever differences it has and then the House to figure out what it's working with."

An aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, defended the chamber's record, pointing to a bill to tie student loans to Treasury notes, which the House passed. The Senate has been unable to pass anything on the subject, which led to loan rates doubling from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1.

The Cantor aide also laid out the July schedule, which includes another vote to delay part of Mr. Obama's health care law, bills dealing with education, and a measure to boost border security.

Still, the list of issues awaiting House action continues to grow.

Last month, the Senate sent over its broad immigration bill, which passed on a 68-32 vote. Earlier this year, the Senate completed work on its version of the farm bill, and also passed a bill dealing with states' ability to impose sales taxes on Internet purchases.

But the House failed to pass its version of the farm bill after Republicans approved an amendment making the legislation more conservative, chasing away Democratic support but still failing to win over enough GOP lawmakers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, told reporters Tuesday that he didn't envy Mr. Boehner having to surf through those issues with his colleagues so deeply divided.

"I guess I feel sorry for the speaker," Mr. Reid said.

Still, Mr. Reid's chamber is worse than the House in comparison.

The Senate has amassed the second most sluggish legislative record, trailing only the futility of 2011 when the chamber posted its lowest score, by far.





Source: Copyright Washington Times (DC) 2013