The Year in Washington: Key Moments from a Do-Nothing Congress
The 112th Congress stormed in amid a devastating recession, an Obama hangover, and an increasingly strong movement called the Tea Party. Republicans reclaimed the House from the Democrats, who barely held onto a majority in the Senate. Since then, it's been a game of pulling congressional teeth in a year that will likely go down as one of the most divided and unproductive in history. What got done in 2011? The better question is what didn't get done. Congress passed fewer bills this year than they did in the last 10 non-election years, and President Obama signed fewer of them than any president in the last two decades. Here, some key moments from 2011's do-nothing Congress:
1. A government shutdown loomed. One of the most infuriating congressional episodes came in April, when a battle raged over how best to cut America's budget. Forget the fact that making deep cuts backfires during economic downturns, or that Planned Parenthood, which was held hostage by the GOP during the negotiations, has very little to do with our ballooning debt. Republicans and Democrats just couldn't agree. At the 11th hour, 800,000 government employees were spared a pay furlough when Congress passed a one-week budget as a bridge to permanent legislation. But the damage to the nation's confidence in its Congress had been done.
2. An imaginary debt-ceiling crisis emerged. A few months after the budget debacle, the United States' spending habits were again in the spotlight. In order to prevent default on money we'd already spent, Congress was charged with raising the debt ceiling, an arbitrary limit on our spending ability that could have been increased with a simple flick of a presidential pen. But instead of staying firm, President Obama made it clear he was willing to negotiate, and Republicans pounced. Months of bitter arguments ensued as other legislation was ignored. Eventually, Congress agreed to cut $1 trillion worth of spending in the next decade if a special supercommittee didn't have a better idea. The supercommittee ended up being a colossal failure.
3. The House passed lots of symbolic bills that died in the Senate. The House ushered through a handful of socially and fiscally conservative bills in the name of political theater that never saw the light of day. Tea Party Republicans passed the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act as answer to the debt crisis, while their colorfully named Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act sought to repeal Obama's landmark legislation. The House also had its sights set on abortion, first with the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which memorably attempted to redefine rape, and then with the Protect Life Act, a bill to bar federal funding for health plans covering abortion.
4. Meanwhile, a jobs bill couldn't get through the House or the Senate. In September, President Obama proposed a jobs bill that didn't even fly with the Democratic-controlled Senate. In response, Obama vowed to break up the bill into smaller pieces. Since then, two smaller bills involving teachers and infrastructure have choked and died. (A smaller piece tweaking the Internal Revenue Code made it through.) The Republicans' idea of a job bill? Repealing the corporate income tax and reducing business regulations. Needless to say, the Senate has not been on board.
What happens next? The Bush tax cuts, as well as a payroll tax holiday, are about to expire, and Congress has yet to iron out the details. The House still has five of 11 regular appropriations bills to pass for fiscal 2012. They're also hard at work on a regulatory reforms bill, which is, of course, as good as dead in the Senate. Beyond all that, there are a bunch of last-minute, uncontroversial measures circulating. As we enter the new year, let's hope for more action—and a lot less squabbling.