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A Divided Government Yields Little Progress

Divided government and hyperpartisanship in Congress has produced a lot of bluster this year, but as of Congress’ return last week, little legislation of consequence has actually made it to the president’s desk.

“They can’t seem to agree on anything,” former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said. “Divided government can be good when everyone is working together. … But you have to find a rhythm, and so far, the president hasn’t been able to do that and the Congress hasn’t been able to do that. For the country, you hope they can.” 

The dearth of legislative accomplishments so far is a result of the House GOP majority’s and the Senate Democratic majority’s inability to agree on anything beyond keeping the government running, and even then, they have taken the country to the precipice of a potential financial debacle twice already this year.

“It doesn’t give you great optimism for the next few months,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) added. “Having said that, the challenges are so great that I hope we can address them.”

As of now, it appears neither party will have much substantive legislative accomplishment to run on in 2012. But they can point a finger at the other body for blocking their agendas.

As of the end of August, Congress and the president had agreed to only 28 measures this year. At a similar point in 2009, 62 laws had been enacted.

“Quantity-wise they have not done much at all,” though lawmakers have next year to improve their average in the 112th Congress, said Sarah Binder, a historian of Congress at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Most of Congress’ legislative energy this year has gone into approving two must-pass bills: a fiscal 2011 spending bill that avoided a partial government shutdown and the $2.1 trillion deal to raise the debt ceiling. Both were passed within hours of their deadlines.

“Normally, I would say they deserve credit for doing the budget deal in April and the debt ceiling deal in August, but those are really problems of their own making,” Binder said.

The fiscal 2011 spending levels and the debt ceiling increase got caught up in the debate over cutting federal spending. Republicans, who won control of the House in last year’s elections and boosted their numbers in the Senate, have made reducing the debt and deficit their top priority. Only recently — as the federal debt has reached record levels — has raising the debt limit become so contentious. Congress has raised the debt ceiling 10 times in the past 10 years.

The 12 annual spending bills — which were due to be passed by the Oct. 1, 2010, start of the fiscal year — were not passed by the then-Democratic-controlled Congress. Instead, action was delayed until April 2011, allowing the newly installed House Republicans to make good use of the groundswell of support from the tea party and other segments of the electorate fed up with the historically high budget deficit and lackluster economy.

With the level of partisanship intensifying as the 2012 elections approach, Binder said things were not likely to change next year.

“All signals point to a stalemate,” Binder said.

Indeed, the focus on cutting spending appears to have come at the expense of action on other legislation. “The spending and budget decisions have sucked all the air out of the legislative process,” Binder said.

Legislative gridlock can also be chalked up to differences over other areas. Republicans have called for repealing the health care and the financial reform laws enacted in 2010. With the Senate (to say nothing of the White House) still in Democratic hands, nothing will happen on that front.

Of course, there are some bills in the pipeline, such as legislation to reform the patent system; both the House and Senate have passed their own versions and are working on a compromise.

But many of the measures that Congress has passed, aside from the budget and debt ceiling deals, amounted to lawmakers putting off politically difficult decisions until later. That has been especially true of attempts to reauthorize Federal Aviation Administration programs.

The Senate and House have been at loggerheads over rewriting the law that governs the FAA, with disagreements over provisions that would cut subsidies for small airports and make it harder for airline and railroad workers to unionize.

The matter came to a head when the stalemate led to a partial shutdown of the FAA on July 23 when lawmakers couldn’t agree on another extension of current law. A deal on a short-term extension was finally struck in early August, but it expires Friday, so Congress will have to pass a full reauthorization by then or — more likely — pass another extension.

Other temporary extensions Congress passed this year — rather than make the tough calls on longer-term legislation — include a stopgap for surface transportation programs. The extension expires Sept. 30, and renewing it could prove as contentious as extending the FAA law.

In early August, Congress passed the deal to raise the debt ceiling, which included reductions in spending growth that would total $917 billion over 10 years. The law also set up a joint committee that would identify $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction that Congress would have to vote on. Failure to enact the panel’s deficit proposal would trigger an automatic
$1.2 trillion in cuts.

Because the law puts the responsibility of making the cuts on the new committee, some lawmakers who opposed the measure believe it was just another instance of Congress shirking its responsibility.

Before voting against the measure, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said, “I do not support passing along the responsibilities of 535 Members of Congress to a fast-track 12-Member commission with the power to raise taxes without extended debate and amendment.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), on the other side of the political spectrum, said he opposed the deal, in part, because “the so-called deficit reduction super committee of six Senators and six House Members will have the power to make devastating cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and veterans.”

Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

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