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The 7 Most Important Things Congress Did in 2013 (and the Top 25 Things It Didn’t)

Every lawmaker and staffer at home for the holidays is surely spending much of the break answering some version of this same derisive question: What’s it like, being a part of the least productive Congress in modern times? Two numbers frame the discomforting answer: 7 and 25.

The figures represent one rudimentary, but nonetheless accurate, way to measure the “score” for congressional accomplishment in 2013. Seven undeniably consequential things actually got completed at the Capitol during the year. But another 25 relatively big legislative goals — some set by only one party, but plenty claimed by both sides — were left at various points along the wayside.

It’s an even more lopsided outcome than was widely expected until just before the final flurry of activity for the year, just before the Senate adjourned on Dec. 20. (The House went home one week earlier.) In one final example of the sort of what’s-the-use paralysis that gripped the Capitol for so much of the year, Democrats gave up on their plans to secure all the confirmations they’d planned for and had the votes to achieve — because they were unwilling to wait around on the weekend before Christmas until the Republicans had exhausted all their allotted time for claiming they’d been railroaded.

The narrative’s been set for months: Record gridlock will be the “historic” hallmark affixed to the first session of the 113th Congress. Yes, there are the easy caveats: there are always limits to making laws in a divided government. Some of the most important issues of our time are too complex to solve quickly. Writing legislation is not necessarily the best way to address a national problem. And not all bills are created equal; renaming a post office is, of course, not as credit-worthy as mandating peace in our time.

Still, the final bill President Barack Obama signed before beginning his two-week vacation in Hawaii, a 10-year extension of the ban on plastic firearms, was only the 57th public law added to the books this year. And only another 17 more are being readied for the president’s signature — a couple of top-tier bills finished in the final days, the defense authorization measure and the budget deal, along with a passel of obscure tweaks to existing law. (One, for example, would smooth a benefits wrinkle for disabled veterans training for the Paralympic Games.)

Assuming Obama signs every bill he gets, which seems like a safe bet, that would mean 74 new statutes enacted in 2013 — a record for the smallest legislative output since before World War II, when the modern record-keeping regime was instituted.

The current mark is 90, from 2011, the opening year for the current configuration of divided government

As for the best apples-to-apples comparisons — to years when presidents were starting their second terms dealing with a divided Congress — the 2013 number will look even more meager. Bill Clinton signed 153 laws in 1997, Ronald Reagan wielded his pen 240 times in 1985, and Richard M. Nixon affixed his signature to 247 measures in 1973.

For all those who will be spending the next couple of weeks defending their role in the dysfunction — to their constituents or their in-laws — here’s a clip-and-save list of reminders for boasting about or deriding what did and did not get done in 2013.

The 7 Most Important Things Congress Did:

  • Erase $45 billion in across-the-board cuts to domestic and military programs that were set to take effect in January, plus another $19 billion due a year later. (About $140 billion of the sequester that had been dictated in 2011 for both this fiscal year and the next one was left intact.) The additional discretionary spending is to be more than offset by projected savings and non-tax revenue increases worth $85 billion in the next decade, allowing the difference to be counted toward deficit reduction.
  • Eliminate the filibuster as a tool for blocking almost all nominees. The Senate changed its rules to lower the threshold for invoking cloture, or limiting debate, on executive and judicial nominations except to the Supreme Court — from three-fifths of all senators to a simple majority of those present. It’s the biggest limitation on the powers of the minority party, and the most fundamental alteration to the way the Senate functions, since 1975.
  • Shift the ideological balance on the nation’s second-most influential federal bench, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Senate confirmed three of President Barack Obama’s choices for longstanding vacancies. When the year began, four active judges on the court were nominees of Republican presidents and three had been picked by Democrats.
  • Revamp the system for setting interest rates on federal college and graduate school loans. Before the start of every school year, the rate will be tied to the government’s own cost of borrowing, but also subject to new caps. The compromise did away with a fixed interest rate that Congress had been under pressure to reduce indefinitely.
  • Expand the reach of the Violence Against Women Act, which directs federal efforts to combat and prosecute domestic abuse. Gay and lesbian victims may now benefit from the law’s legal assistance, transitional housing, law enforcement training and hotline programs, and the rules were eased for using tribal courts to prosecute non-Native Americans accused of sex crimes on reservations.
  • Provide $50.5 billion to help local governments and individuals with Superstorm Sandy recovery and reconstruction. After one of the most damaging storms ever in the nation’s largest metropolitan area, the emergency aid was delayed 13 weeks because of disputes over whether the package was too generous or should be matched with offsetting cuts elsewhere in the budget.
  • Enact a defense authorization bill for a 53rd consecutive year, a record of consistency unmatched by any other measure that’s supposed to be updated annually. The bill’s most notable feature is a package of provisions designed to stanch an epidemic of sexual assault in the armed forces.

The 25 Most Important Things Congress Talked About, but Did Not Do:

  • Appropriate money for any programs or agencies by the start of the new budget year, leading to a suspension of non-essential federal services for the first 16 days of October. It was the first such partial government shutdown since early 1996.
  • Repeal or make any substantive changes to the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 law also known as Obamacare that overhauled the nation’s medical insurance system.
  • Expand the national background check system for prospective gun buyers, restrict the size of ammunition magazines or otherwise tighten federal gun control laws in response to a series of high-profile mass shootings.
  • Change immigration law, either by expanding border security or by creating a path to legal residency or citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the United States without documentation.
  • Confirm Janet L. Yellen as the first Democrat since 1987 to head the Federal Reserve, the government’s single-most influential economic policymaking position. The Fed vice chairwoman since 2009, she would be the first woman and only the 15th person to wield the gavel in the central bank’s hundred-year history.
  • Limit benefits provided by Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, the biggest federal entitlement programs. Their projected annual growth rates pose the most substantial challenge to controlling annual federal deficits and the accumulated debt in the next two decades.
  • Extend a collection of routine and relatively non-controversial tax provisions — or begin an overhaul of the federal tax code to reduce the number of exemptions, exclusions and expenditures while expanding the ranks of people and businesses required to pay some taxes.
  • Advance any proposals for combating climate change by reducing the nation’s carbon footprint, even as the scientific consensus solidified that human activity has been responsible for most of the global warming in recent decades.
  • Revise conditions for providing aid to public elementary and secondary schools. The No Child Left Behind law, seen by both parties as in need of a rewrite, has been due for an update since 2007.
  • Reduce crop subsidies for farmers and food stamp benefits for poor people as part of a rewrite of the multi-year farm bill, which lapsed in 2012.
  • Limit the roles of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the national housing market, either by ending or curtailing the government’s role as a guarantor of mortgages.
  • Tighten rules for the National Security Agency’s collection of civilians’ telephone calling or other electronic communication records, in response to the furor over the breadth of NSA spying programs.
  • Proscribe any alterations to foreign policy, despite intense debate over intensifying sanctions on Iran and launching a military strike on Syria to punish its use of chemical weapons.
  • Prohibit businesses with more than 15 employees from discrimination in hiring and employment based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • Overhaul and curtail the operations of the Postal Service so it can become financially viable in the era of declining mail volume.
  • Raise the federally guaranteed minimum wage above $7.25 an hour, where it has been fixed since July 2009.
  • Allow states to require that online retailers outside their borders collect sales taxes on goods purchased by their residents.
  • Streamline the 35 sometimes duplicative programs providing employment and job training aid to the states.
  • Replace the formula for limiting Medicare payments to physicians, which has been routinely ignored since its 1997 creation with a series of annual “doc fix” bills.
  • Update the Voting Rights Act in reaction to a Supreme Court decision overturning a central component while inviting a congressional rewrite.
  • Outlaw almost all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, the new top legislative cause of the National Right to Life Committee.
  • Expedite regulatory and environmental reviews of federal water projects and revamp the funding system for dredging and harbor maintenance.
  • Speed construction across the Great Plains of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, a focal point in the national debate about balancing economic development and environmental stewardship.
  • Continue a policy, started during the height of the 2008 recession, of extending jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed for 28 weeks beyond the usual expiration after six months.
  • Ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The treaty, negotiated during the George W. Bush administration and ratified by 138 other nations, is designed to extend globally a system of accommodations for the disabled enshrined in federal law since 1990.

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