Vilified Congress Shows Few Signs of Ending Gridlock in 2013

July 8, 2013 07:04 AM

The budgetary deficit, a loophole-riddled tax code and a Senate revamping of immigration law given little chance in the House.

Laura Litvan

With few signs of ending the gridlock crushing public approval of Congress, U.S. lawmakers return this week to confront a budgetary deficit, a loophole-riddled tax code and a Senate revamping of immigration law given little chance in the House.

Their conflicts don’t stop there. Republicans in the Democratic-controlled Senate may block President Barack Obama’s nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Labor Department. The Republican-run House may try to revive farm legislation while seeking a piecemeal approach to immigration instead of the broad plan the Senate passed on June 27.

They will approach all this with a 15-percent public approval rating. Even passage of an immigration compromise wouldn’t be enough to uproot the view of a Congress that can’t address the nation’s top challenges, said Michael Dimock, director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington.

"One success in a row is not a pattern," Dimock said. "The real big-ticket items that people want to see action on haven’t happened."

Congressional inaction has slowed Obama’s legislative agenda to a crawl in the first year of his second term, with the prospect of even fewer accomplishments next year before the 2014 midterm congressional elections. Still, lawmakers, not the president, are paying the price in public opinion, according to a Gallup Poll report last month.

50 Percent

So far this year, an average of 50 percent of Americans surveyed approve of the job Obama is doing as president, while Congress is averaging 15 percent, according to Gallup. Obama’s ability to appear above the fray of partisan debates gives him a shield from anger over the gridlock, the organization said.

Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said he sees the measures most likely to pass this year -- farm legislation, a debt-limit increase, an annual bill to reauthorize defense programs and perhaps immigration -- as small items considering that Americans are still struggling in a slow economy. Even less will probably get done next year as midterm elections loom, he said.

"That’s close to the agenda for the rest of the year," Connolly said in an interview. "There’s so much not addressed, in terms of jobs and infrastructure and dealing with sequestration," he said, referring to automatic budget cuts that kicked in earlier this year.

Hispanic Voters

Among the top goals Obama outlined Feb. 12 in his annual State of the Union address, immigration is the only one seeing action. Some Republicans view the issue as a way to boost the party’s appeal among Hispanic voters, a fast-growing group that gave Obama 71 percent of its support in the 2012 election.

The Senate rejected Obama’s bid for tougher gun laws following the Dec. 14 killings of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school. Going nowhere are his calls for legislation to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, $50 billion in infrastructure spending and raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 an hour by the end of 2015.

Senate Republicans’ opposition to his choices of Gina McCarthy to lead the EPA and Thomas Perez as labor secretary are delaying his drive to complete his second-term Cabinet.
The president’s agenda also is being slowed by congressional investigations into Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of small-government groups seeking tax-exempt status, the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs and the Sept. 11 attacks at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador was among those killed.

‘Particularly Widespread’

"The administration is just putting out fires," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "It’s a second-term problem, but it’s particularly widespread and acute in this administration."

In Congress, few measures have been signed into law this year. Between the Jan. 3 start of the session and the end of June, 15 pieces of legislation were enacted. One specifies the size of National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins and another prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from restricting fishing near dams in the Cumberland River Basin.

Just a handful of the measures had much weight, including a $60.2 billion aid package to help rebuild communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy.

Going forward, there is little movement on big measures. A drive for a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction is on hold until September, when Congress will debate an increase in the nation’s $16.7 trillion debt limit.

Baucus, Camp

Congress’s top tax writers, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, are visiting St. Paul, Minnesota, today to promote a revision of U.S. tax laws. Baucus, a Montana Democrat, and Camp, a Michigan Republican, still disagree over a fundamental question: whether a new tax code should raise more revenue for the government.

Some delays have real effects. The rate that college undergraduates from poor families pay for student loans doubled on July 1, to 6.8 percent, after senators left for a one-week recess without agreement on a new interest rate. Congress can act retroactively if lawmakers work out a plan.

Some lawmakers, though, say they take heart in a few early 2013 gains. Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, said Congress deserves credit for reauthorizing programs that fight domestic violence.

Following the Senate’s June 10 passage of a $955 billion agriculture plan, he said he still believes both chambers probably will complete that measure this year even though the House defeated its version of the farm bill on June 20.

‘Not Perfect’

"It’s not everything I would have liked," King said. "It’s not perfect and it’s not where I would like it to be. But there has been progress and the immigration bill is a very good example of bipartisan work. I’m feeling very positive."

House Republicans plan a private meeting on July 10 to plan strategy on immigration. The Senate passed its plan with 14 Republicans joining Democrats to back a proposal that pairs a doubling of border security with a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S.

Many House Republicans oppose the citizenship path, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, whose panel is working on separate immigration bills in contrast to the Senate’s comprehensive approach. Goodlatte has said he may consider a path for children whose parents immigrated illegally.

Most Republicans

At the urging of his rank and file, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said last month he won’t advance an immigration bill unless it has the support of most Republicans in the chamber. That means he won’t let a bill pass with mostly Democratic support, as he has in some previous votes, including a 2011 measure that raised the federal debt ceiling.

"Each successive development raises questions about whether the immigration bill will pass," said David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University. "The House might pass a bill, but I doubt it will accord with what’s going on in the Senate. The chances of comprehensive immigration reform have dropped."

Even if lawmakers agree on a final immigration plan, it might not boost the public’s view of Congress much because that issue is far down the list of priorities for American voters, said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.

In a June 1-4 Gallup poll, 43 percent of Americans named either the economy or employment and jobs as the No. 1 issue facing the U.S., while 6 percent said immigration topped their list of concerns.

At the same time, lawmakers are in a bind because failure to get a measure to the president’s desk will still spark a backlash, Newport said.

"Whenever they’re unable to get something done," Newport said, "their approval ratings dip lower." 

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