Soap Box: Same Old, Same "Auld Lang Syne" in DC

Monday, January 6, 2014
[NOTE: "Soap Box" is my initial attempt at creating a weekly opinion-based column. I will focus primarily on politics, national security, and the media but I can't rule out commenting on some of the "silly" things that seem to capture our national attention from time to time.  I am hoping that this can become a full-time gig for me--wish me luck!]

The start of a new calendar year normally initiates two reflective activities in our society--a review of the just-completed 12-month span and a preview of the upcoming 365-day period.  Due to the nature of our country's political systems and schedules, Congress will get the lion's share of attention as it slogs its way through the second half of a very disappointing two-year term.  While achieving high marks in terms of hyperbole, political theater and partisanship, it is failing in what the voters sent those members there to do--legislate!

2014 is shaping up to be a lot like 2013 was on Capitol Hill -- unproductive!

According to Wikipedia, the 80th Congress of the United States--members of the US House of Representatives and Senate who served between January 3, 1947 and January 3, 1949--was labeled "the Do-Nothing Congress" by then-president Harry S. Truman for its lack of legislative productivity.  During that two-year span, the two Republican-led bodies passed a total of 1,739 bills into law but it earned that politicized moniker due to its staunch opposition to Truman's Fair Deal domestic reform initiatives in the years following the end of World War II.  However, those totals appear absolutely "workaholic" when compared to what the 113th Congress has to show for its first full year of work.

Up until the last Congress, the one that previously held the record for fewest laws passed was the 104th, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. (photo courtesy of Reuters)

With the GOP-led House holding an obstructionist position just like their 1940s-era predecessors, the current version of our country's legislative branch have passed a grand total of 65 bills on to the White House for signature (with five of them ceremoniously renaming public buildings or structures).  At such a blistering pace, they can be assured of securing the "do-nothing" title from the recently completed 112th Congress that was only able to pass 561 introduced measures during its 24-month existence.  Coincidentally, the previous holder for underachieving was the 104th (1995-1996), the historic "Republican Revolution" mid-term victory that swept both houses of Congress to GOP control, that only passed 611 bills.

Air travel delays, commemorative baseball coins, and a retired Texas senator were some of the subjects of the meager legislative production by the 113th Congress.

I can already hear the rebuttals building as I typed those words--numbers are numbers but what is important are the issues that were addressed.  If we take a look at the 113th's list of passed legislation, you can get a firsthand view of what kinds of issues attracted their attention:

  • "No Budget, No Pay Act of 2013": an incentive to get members of Congress to actually do their jobs and raise the nation's debt limit to pay for things that Congress had already approved
  • "Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013": poll-driven stop-gap legislation that ended congressionally mandated sequestration cuts to federal air traffic controllers
  • a quarter-page long amendment of the wording for the August 2012 "National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Act" to standardize the size of precious metal blanks used for those coins
  • renaming a portion of 1986 Internal Revenue Service code after retired Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
It wouldn't be fair to say that no meaningful legislation was passed in 2013.  The first two pieces of legislation (PL 113-1 and 113-2) that were passed related to "Superstorm Sandy", a late-season hurricane that directly affected 24 states (along with six other nations) and caused an estimated $68 billion in damage and took the lives of 286 people.  In the final hours of the 112th's "lame duck" session, the Republican-led House chose to delay their vote on a $60 billion aid measure that was already passed by the Senate to the next term in a move widely seen as Speaker John Boehner's tacit support for his fiscally conservative "Tea Party" caucus.  After securing the speakership for the 113th Congress (and getting a barrage of criticism from New Jersey governor--and potential 2016 presidential candidate--Chris Christie), the measures were quickly introduced and approved.

Texas senator Ted Cruz about 30 minutes into his 21-hour marathon speech on the Senate floor on September 25. (screen cap courtesy of C-SPAN)

Another "success" was the "Continuing Appropriations Act, 2014", a measure with the twin objectives of ending the GOP-instigated government shutdown and pushing back yet another debt ceiling "fiscal crisis" into the new year.  And it was during this period that my choice for "rookie of the year", freshman Texas senator Ted Cruz, inserted himself right in the middle of that bicameral end-of-fiscal-year staredown with a last-ditch attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, before it started accepting customers on October 1st?   Initially, he spoke for 21 hours on the floor of the US Senate in late September in an attempt to delay that body's vote on a continuing resolution to fund the government through the end of 2013--the same one that he joined with all the rest of his fellow legislators to end that stalling tactic and proceed to taking the final Senate vote on the measure.

Texas senator Ted Cruz and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin recite the Pledge of Allegiance prior to addressing a gathering at the "Million Vet March on the Memorials" on October 13. (photo courtesy of Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

After the House failed to agree with the Senate's resolution, the federal government was forced to close on October 1 and this activity vacuum would bring Mr. Cruz to the spotlight again in an orchestrated PR event held at the World War II Memorial with 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin protesting the closing of the World War II and other national monuments during the impasse.  In the shutdown's waning days, Cruz and between 15 to 20 House Republicans reportedly held a secret gaggle at a Capitol Hill Tex-Mex restaurant to discuss sabotaging the Senate's bipartisan deal that would eventually end the stalemate 17 days after it began--and 17 days after Obamacare went into effect as designed (ironically, it was one of the few programs that was not affected by the shutdown).  His last grasp at the limelight came when he got to share camera time with Senate majority leader Harry Reid and minority leader Mitch McConnell when they announced their negotiated deal.  Cruz commandeered a huge press following when he stated that he would not block the chamber's vote while waxing a populist message to an audience that already knew that he was the main culprit for their then-current fiscal woes.

Texas senator Ted Cruz speaking to the press after the announcement of a resolution to avoid a debt default and end the government shutdown. (photo by Karolyn Castor/AP)

Through one of their last measures enacted into law in late December (the mutually panned Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, signed into law by President Obama on December 26), the threat of another government shutdown was eliminated through 2015, with only the looming February debt ceiling negotiations serving as a potential high drama mark in what appears to be a rather boring year.  The Republican House leadership has already announced a 135-day schedule for 2014 (with 97 of them coming before the November 4 mid-term elections) and a similar work-avoiding Senate schedule should guarantee the 113th's place in the annals of all-time legislative slackerdom (Harry Reid's ending of the filibuster motion for presidential appointments should break the current logjam of backfills for federal positions).  The only thing that will keep us political junkies interested will be the upcoming mid-term elections where all 435 House seats and 33 of the 100 Senate seats will be contested; however, with at least two notable pollsters seeing the Democrats keeping a razor-slim majority in the upper chamber, we could be seeing this same old, same old gridlock "hangover"  through 2016.

P.S.  This was supposed to be a Sunday posting but a lingering head cold kept my thoughts a little too incoherent for posting until today.  I'll try to be on time this coming week! -- JoB!

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