WASHINGTON — The good news for Congress as it heads into the final workdays of the year is that, for the first time in five years, there are no edge-of-the-cliff December crises threatening to bring the country to its knees.
The bad news is that whatever gets done in December will still be part of a year with record-low congressional accomplishment.
From the confirmation of a new Federal Reserve chairman to the expiration of dairy pricing rules, House and Senate leaders head into the final month of 2013 with a checklist that is short but critical. But even a final burst of activity would do little to change the historic arc of this calendar year under the Capitol dome.
According to congressional records, there have been fewer than 60 public laws enacted in the first 11 months of this year, so far below the previous low in legislative output that officials have already declared this first session of the 113th Congress the least productive ever. In 1995, when the newly empowered GOP congressional majority confronted the Clinton administration, 88 laws were enacted, the record low in the post-World War II era.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pressed about what his majority had to show for its work in 2013, told reporters in mid November that the GOP was most proud of putting a brake on tougher regulations on business and impeding efforts by President Barack Obama to push a more liberal agenda on the country.
"Listen," Boehner said, "we have a very divided country and we have a very divided government. And I'm not going to sit here and underestimate the difficulty in finding the common ground, because there's not as much common ground here as there used to be."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., cited congressional dysfunction in his decision to break precedent and change rules regarding presidential nominations so that a simple majority could advance a confirmation to a final vote. He laughed last week when a radio interviewer asked whether the fallout from his unilateral move would lead to fewer accomplishments, suggesting that was not possible.
"More dysfunction? I mean, gee whiz," Reid said to public radio interviewer Diane Rehm.
With those low expectations, it is unclear how much can get done as the GOP-controlled House and Democratic-run Senate continue to be at loggerheads on the most basic of functions.
The House returns today from the Thanksgiving break, and the Senate returns Dec. 9.
Hopes are mixed as to whether the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., can reach a pact that will set a budget framework for federal agency spending for the rest of the fiscal year.
Both lawmakers have expressed optimism in the past few weeks, but that is largely because they have narrowed the scope of their aspirations. Their talks now focus on just a few possible tradeoffs that give agencies some relief from the sequestration caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act in exchange for some savings drawn from entitlement programs.
Still, many insiders are betting that even a small bargain is beyond reach and that congressional leaders will have to figure out early next year how to keep the government running when funding authority expires Jan. 15.
With such little time to get things done, senior House GOP and Senate Democratic advisers suggest that a trio of benefits that expire Dec. 31 are not likely to win approval. Those include some unemployment benefits, funding to help workers displaced by global trade and a collection of business-friendly tax breaks.
Another key issue that is up in the air is the "doc fix," a nearly annual alteration to the fees paid to Medicare providers to assure that doctors and hospitals do not drop patients from the entitlement program. Some of those issues could be wrapped into a spending bill that must be approved by Jan. 15, with retroactive benefits applied to mitigate any damage from the lapse from the end of December.
Among the items on the must-do list, the confirmation of the new Fed chair is the top priority as Ben Bernanke's long tenure overseeing the nation's monetary policy concludes. Janet Yellen, a vice chair of the Fed, has cleared the Senate banking committee.
The Yellen nomination should be finalized by mid December, while several others could also be considered: Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., to run the organization that oversees mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; Jeh Johnson's nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; and three nominees to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
House and Senate aides agree that there are two other items that must be dealt with: farm policy and the expiration of laws banning plastic guns.
Congress must at least pass some form of an extension of farm laws by year's end or face the threat of havoc in the agriculture markets, particularly dairy, which could lead to price shocks on milk.
On Dec. 9, the 1988 law banning weapons manufacturers from making guns that cannot be detected by security systems expires, and GOP and Democratic aides said the two chambers are eager to approve some extension of the law to deter wider criminal use of the plastic guns, which are less detectable than their metallic versions.