WASHINGTON -- Newcomers to a disliked institution, three freshman members of the U.S. House of Representatives from the St. Louis area say they are as frustrated as their constituents at Congress' inability to get much done.
Ballwin's Ann Wagner has risen in Republican leadership. She blames Harry Reid and President Barack Obama for the inaction, and is frustrated at watching House-passed legislation "dying a slow death over in Harry Reid's do-nothing Senate."
Democrat Bill Enyart, of Belleville, says many problems could be solved if members of Congress stopped voting on bills that look good to partisans but have no chance of becoming law, and if House Speaker John Boehner let pressing issues -- such as immigration reform -- get up-or-down votes.
Republican Rodney Davis, of Taylorville, Ill., says the 24-hour news cycle "projects a polarization that, when you get here, doesn't really exist." He says his most satisfying work has been done with Democrats.
All three want to stay in their jobs and are seeking re-election. Enyart and Davis occupy two of the fewer than 80 contested House seats this year out of 435 total. Their 12th and 13th Illinois U.S. House districts will attract millions of dollars from big-money national players on the right and left. Wagner faces no opposition in the upcoming primary and is heavily favored to win re-election in November.
Bashing Congress has been in the American democracy's DNA for many years. Harry S Truman won re-election in 1948 by campaigning against a "do-nothing Congress."
But Congress is in a prolonged public opinion funk. It has not received an approval rating higher than 20 percent in 21 months, and the last time it was above 30 percent, Obama was just seven months into his presidency. Commentators have ridiculed Congress as lazy and dysfunctional.
His party facing potential disaster at the polls in November and his own approval rating lingering in the low 40s, the president has joined the attacks on Congress -- or, more specifically, the Republicans in Congress.
"The best you can say for them this year is that so far they have not shut down the government or threatened to have America (default) on our obligations and ruin our credit rating," Obama said at a Texas fundraiser last week.
A week earlier, he complained that congressional Republicans "don't do anything except block me and call me names."
In fact, this Congress has produced laws that will have an impact on St. Louis and the surrounding region.
A new farm bill not only reined in spending, it made a historic shift from taxpayer-financed support prices to a risk-management system more akin to crop insurance. A new law on the construction and financing of water projects, important to Mississippi River shipping, recreation and flood control, is designed to cut project planning from 15 to three years.
Davis, the Democrat, and Enyart, the Republican, each cited those laws as bipartisan successes.
"We got rid of direct payments, we made sure management tools were there," Davis said of the farm bill. "We actually put some common sense things into the human nutrition side."
Enyart said that the bill survived despite attacks from the right and left.
"Republicans on the far right abandoned it because it didn't cut enough from SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Democrats on the left abandoned it because they thought it cut too much. I voted for it because I thought we needed to get an ag bill done."
Differences were hashed out in a House-Senate conference, and the bill passed with bipartisan votes -- "the way it is supposed to work," Enyart said.
"So I don't think it is fair at all to say" current lawmakers amount to a do-nothing Congress, he said. "We have gotten some things done, but there is a whole lot more that needs to be done, and particularly, we have got to fix this budget situation."
Then, in a reference to the coming campaign season and the gridlocked budget debate, he added: "I am very confident that it will not get done before the election."
The prospects for immigration reform (passed by the Senate but blocked from a House vote by Boehner) are about the same. The once-normal appropriations process (thwarted, Republicans say, by the refusal of Reid, the Democratic Senate leader, to allow amendments and debate), has produced more debate about process than actual progress.
Highway funding is unsolved. The humanitarian disaster at the Mexican border, involving thousands of Central American children smuggled into the United States, has unleashed fresh, partisan finger-pointing.
Despite Obama's plea for a "year of action" in his State of the Union speech in January, debate on the debt and deficit has been largely a regurgitation of talking points.
Wagner, who last month was named a senior deputy whip -- the highest leadership position of any freshman -- says that the Republican House has passed 294 bills that the Reid-led Senate has refused to consider.
"Harry Reid is carrying the president's water," she said. "The president doesn't want to make a decision, yea or nay, on anything. It is almost a void of leadership.
Enyart said many of the bills Wagner referred to were designed only to confront Obama politically, done with the knowledge the Senate would block them or Obama would veto them. The GOP House has passed roughly 50 bills to repeal all or parts of the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.
"Many of the bills in my opinion that have passed (the House) have had such egregious provisions in them that it is no wonder the Senate has not passed them or taken them up," Enyart said. "Why waste your time?"
By new-law metrics, this could be the least-productive Congress in the post-Watergate era, according to figures complied by Congress.gov. The 113th Congress so far has produced 126 signed laws, ranging from a Davis-sponsored measure to name the new I-70 Mississippi River bridge after Cardinals great Stan Musial, to the aforementioned farm and water bills.
Congress under Obama has been the least productive in terms of new laws than those under any recent president. Congress has passed an average of 335 laws per each full congressional term of two years under Obama, as opposed to 458 under George W. Bush and 455 under Bill Clinton, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of data from Congress.gov.
But those are imprecise metrics. Some legislation gets folded into other bills. As an example, a proposal co-sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., to expand mental health treatment was attached to a broader health care measure that Obama signed into law.
And blocking bad legislation can be just as important as passing good. New House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy would consider it bad if Congress reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank, which he says is unnecessary. The three area freshmen consider the bank essential to support Boeing Co. and other St. Louis-area exporters.
How do a self-described "doer" (Wagner), a "Midwestern-get-it-done kind of guy" (Enyart), or the "I was sent here to make decisions" Davis deal with the frustration of gridlock? By focusing where they made a difference, big or small.
For Wagner, a former ambassador and Republican Party official, it was passage of legislation aimed at combating sex trafficking. Although it overwhelmingly passed the House, it may not pass the Senate this year, but Wagner said she will reintroduce it in January, if she is re-elected. "It is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, not just as a member of Congress, but as a mother," she said.
But she also worries about the corrosive effects of long-term public disdain for the institution in which she now serves. "People are frustrated, they see nothing moving forward," she said. "I understand their frustration. I am feeling it, too. I am living it."
Davis, who was an aide to Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, before being elected to Congress, takes satisfaction that the House has kept pace with spending bills, even if the Senate has lagged. "We are abiding by spending caps" aimed at deficit reduction, he said. He served on the conference committee that negotiated the final farm bill.
And that Stan Musial bill? He said he realizes it did nothing to attack the deficit, but it did help him build relationships that will be useful in more substantial legislation, like the bill he is sponsoring to boost veteran employment. He and fellow freshman Rep. Tulsi Goddard, D-Hawaii, have worked closely on that issue. "We didn't come here just to be angry and fight," Davis said.
Enyart, a former adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard, says he is proud to have led a push to save taxpayers $70 million by requiring all military branches to use the same combat uniform. "Not a lot of money, but it is certainly a start ... to show the military that we need to change the way we are doing business."
His proudest moment? When he was the single "no" vote on a measure that would allow chaplains to go on military bases during the government shutdown last fall, but without pay.
Enyart thought it a symbolic vote to avoid images of chaplains being turned away from military bases or being arrested trying to enter them during the shutdown. Democratic leaders pleaded with him to change his vote. He felt the chaplains should have been paid, their offices opened and heated, even if the federal government was shut down. "If you are going to pass a piece of legislation, then let's pass a piece of legislation that means something," he said.
"My phones blew up," Enyart said, with callers telling him, "you are voting against chaplains, you are against God."
"I know better than anybody else in this Congress what chaplains do," he thought at the time, having commanded 37 in the Illinois Guard. "And by God, you people are not helping them. That vote, more than anything else, expressed my frustration."
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Original headline: The frustrations of freshmen in Congress
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