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We're only at halftime for the 113th Congress, but if current trends hold it's well on track to being the least productive in the nation's history. During this Congress's first yearlong session, just 58 bills became law and many of those were about naming Post Offices or transferring federal lands. In fact, the most memorable act of Congress this year may well have been its failure to act in time to avoid a government shutdown.
NPR's David Welna sizes up this do-little Congress.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Early this year, President Obama began a second term in the White House, with high hopes for moving his agenda through Congress. By the time he held his last news conference of the year on Friday, he was clearly disappointed with the results.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If I look at this past year, there are areas where there obviously have been some frustrations, where I wish Congress had moved more aggressively.
WELNA: Starting, he said, with Congress' failed effort early this year to tighten gun laws after the shooting massacre of first graders in Newtown, Connecticut. But it wasn't just guns...
SARAH BINDER: There are a lot of big ticket items that were talked about, have been on the agenda, but very little was done on them.
WELNA: Sarah Binder is a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution. Much was expected of this first session of the 113th, she says, but little has been delivered.
BINDER: Whether it's immigration reform, tax reform, entitlement reform, Postal Service reform to climate change, the farm bill, there are all sorts of issues that have been talked about. But at the end of 2013, we have all these issues that are ending in deadlock.
WELNA: And why would that be? Theories vary by political party. Senator John Thune is a South Dakota Republican. For him, the problem is circumstantial.
SENATOR JOHN THUNE: It's a divided government. You've got, you've got a Republican House, a Democrat Senate, and a Democrat president for the first time, I believe, since 1859. It's going to be complicated to navigate that to start with.
WELNA: Another senator, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, says Congress' low productivity stems from a lack of willing dealmakers.
SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: You've got an atrophy of the middle, a cannibalization of the middle, and people are worried about their right flank if they're Republicans. Some Democrats are worried about their left flank if they're Democrats. And the way this place works is by people hanging out in the middle and forging compromise.
WELNA: For Maryland House Democrat Chris Van Hollen, the problem lies in deep divisions within the House GOP majority.
REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: The fight is between what used to be the mainstream Republicans in the House and the Tea Party Republicans in the House, and the Tea Party keeps winning.
WELNA: The year started with a cliffhanger deal on New Year's Day that kept taxes from rising for all but the wealthiest taxpayers. That same day, Oklahoma House Republican Tom Cole said Republicans were done making concessions to Democrats.
REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: You want to have a spending fight, you're not going to have to wait very long. It's coming
WELNA: The fight was initially over getting the Democratic-led Senate to pass a budget, something it had not done in years. House Republicans passed legislation docking the pay of lawmakers who failed to pass a budget. House speaker John Boehner led the charge.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: It's real simple: no budget, no pay.
WELNA: The Senate did pass a budget but Republicans then refused to let it be reconciled with the House Budget. In July, speaker Boehner was asked on CBS why Congress was getting so little done. He offered a novel defense.
BOEHNER: We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal. We've got more laws than the administration could ever enforce.
WELNA: Boehner let the Tea Party faction of his caucus lead efforts to block funding for the Affordable Care Act, which led to a government shutdown that backfired, politically, on Republicans. So when a bipartisan budget got hammered out this month that avoided more shutdowns, the speaker of the House swung his support behind it. He also heaped ridicule on conservative groups that fought for the shutdown, knowing it could not stop Obamacare.
BOEHNER: Are you kidding me?
WELNA: This past week, House Republicans put out an ad that portrayed themselves as eagerly passing one bill after another. It was narrated by the same speaker Boehner who, five months earlier, had asked they be judged by the number of bills they repeal.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The bill is passed.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The bill is passed.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The bill is passed.
The bill is passed.
BOEHNER: But Senate Democrats are standing in the way. President Obama is standing on the sidelines. Mr. President, what are you waiting for?
WELNA: Last Thursday, Harry Reid, the leader of Senate Democrats, was asked about what's being called the least productive congress ever.
SENATOR HARRY REID: I wish I had a magic wand to say I know things will be better, I hope they will be. And I think people want it to happen.
WELNA: That night, Reid was hospitalized and later released. The diagnosis, according to his staff, was exhaustion.
David Welna, NPR news, the Capitol.
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