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A Do-Nothing Congress Won’t Surprise These Beltway Insiders

Lawmakers will spend the coming week performing yet another chapter of Groundhog Day, returning to debates that generated ample heat but yielded no conclusion during the election year.

The Senate will plow through the farm bill one more time. The House will vote again to insist on construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and to prevent student loans rates from doubling.

Very little of that will generate headlines, if for no other reason than the attention of Congress at the moment is all about training its investigative powers on the Obama administration controversies.

Then, at week’s end, the Capitol will go dark, with the entire community scattering for a long Memorial Day weekend of cookouts and commencements.

And when the lights go back on, one recess week later, it will signal the start of the second half of the scheduled legislative year. This is a marker that gives new meaning to the idea that time flies when not much of anything is going on.

This is the 16th week of 2013 when at least one chamber of Congress has been in session. After the recess, that many weeks of legislating remain before Veterans Day in November. The Senate has no announced plans to be around beyond then, although if past practice is a guide, it will keep churning away as long as the House, which has penciled in the second Friday in December as the year’s last getaway day. (It’s been a decade since either chamber closed up shop before Thanksgiving in an off year.)

Still, the notion that the first session of the 113th Congress is at halftime makes intuitive sense to many corporate lobbyists, K Street rainmakers, think tank analysts, nonprofit advocates and political-intelligence purveyors — all of whom have to pace themselves to stay on top of things until the last roll is called.

The first year of a president’s term traditionally provides a guarantee of over-employment for those folks because the president is spending down his political capital before its expiration date and lawmakers are as far away from facing voters as they’ll ever be. No other year in the four-year cycle comes close.

But there’s already the palpable sense of profoundly lower-than-normal expectations for Congress this year. Evidence to support that view comes from a survey of Washington insiders by CQ Roll Call’s marketing team, which got 1,715 responses from a mix of customers and prospects from companies, trade associations and lobbying shops.

The headline of the survey: The immigration bill was the only item on the potential legislative agenda that more than 1 in 3 predicted would get done in the next seven months.

The depth of the skepticism is underscored by the fact that the online questionnaire was filled out the week ending May 10 — before the IRS scrutiny of conservative groups, the warrantless seizing of journalists’ phone records and more shape-shifting about the Libyan consulate attack combined to suggest a whole new option for Republicans. They will now make the rest of the year much more about investigation than legislation.

Confidence that an immigration package will become law is the exception: 71 percent said they expected that outcome to be successful.

Such a solid majority isn’t that surprising: Revamping immigration rules has been seen as No. 1 on the domestic policy to-do list since the election, when Republicans’ abysmal showing among Latino voters provided an obvious incentive for the party to compromise on the issue.

What’s noticeable is that nothing else even comes close. Only 35 percent of respondents expect that defense policy will be tackled by the divided Congress, for example, even though lawmakers have finished an annual defense authorization bill without fail for 51 consecutive years.

With remarkable uniformity, the insiders raised a collective eyebrow at the notion that health care, tax or gun control legislation would get done this year. In each case, just 32 percent said it was their expectation the issue would get addressed.

Pessimism on other fronts was starker still. Only 22 percent forecast a compromise for limiting the cybersecurity vulnerabilities of both the government and businesses that maintain economically critical systems.

Only 21 percent checked the phrase “appropriations process.” Since there’s no real move afoot to revamp how Congress apportions discretionary spending, the sentiment probably underscores one of the most widespread expectations at the Capitol: This year’s process will be as ad hoc as any in the past decade, with most of the preliminary decisions ignored or delayed by continuing resolutions this fall, then cobbled together in a year-end omnibus.

The appropriations question highlighted the disconnect between what the insiders expect and what they’d like to see happen. Three in eight volunteered that restoring regular order to the budget system would benefit their organizations. Asked what issues “that impact your organization do you want Congress to address in 2013?,” only three topics finished higher. No. 1 was health care, at 49 percent; taxes was second at 42 percent; and immigration followed at 39 percent.

The survey’s third question sought to gauge how the insiders thought their own lives might change because of congressional action.

The respondents seemed to ignore the old saw about death and taxes being the only certainties in life, because only 3 in 5 picked health care and taxes as issues important to them personally that Congress ought to tackle this year. Third was gun control, at 43 percent. None of the others were even close.

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