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OUR DO-LITTLE CONGRESS

Published Dec. 14, 2014
Updated Dec. 16, 2014

Sen. Mark Pryor began his farewell speech with the usual homage to the institution and how he had a "front row seat to the making of history." But he quickly launched into a biting indictment of Congress.

"We are the problem," the usually low-key Arkansas Democrat charged on Monday. "Hyper-partisanship has gotten the best of us." He asked colleagues to open their wooden desks and see the etched-in names of Republicans and Democrats who got things done - revered figures such as Everett Dirksen and George Mitchell.

"Abraham Lincoln once famously said, 'A house divided against itself cannot stand,'" Pryor said. "Let Lincoln's words be a clarion call. ... Look at what is happening to us."

What is happening is not much.

The 113th Congress, which limped toward an end this weekend with consideration of a gigantic, last-minute spending measure, will be remembered as one of the least productive and most dysfunctional in modern history. The budget deal was a rare moment of bipartisanship that nearly imploded in the House and left no one happy.

More than six decades after President Harry Truman lashed out at a "do-nothing Congress," a new malaise has settled over Washington.

The problem stems from divided control of Congress and a level of polarization that is highest since Reconstruction, as Republicans grow more conservative and Democrats more liberal. Reaching consensus is increasingly difficult, breeding cynicism and driving public approval of Congress to new lows. Lawmakers fled town failing to deal with or falling short on big issues such as jobs and the economy, immigration, tax reform and a fraying national infrastructure. It avoided a robust debate and a vote on the war against Islamic militants.

Shared control of Congress and the White House has, over history, produced results, including the oft-cited 1986 Tax Reform Act which President Ronald Reagan worked out with Democrats, but now it seems unified control is the only way forward.

President Barack Obama and Democrats had a lock on power in the first two years of his tenure and accomplished health care reform, passed the economic stimulus and Wall Street reform - major achievements, no matter how they're seen politically.

"Divided party government is now a formula for vehement opposition and inaction on the most pressing problems facing the country," said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the 2012 book It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.

"Now it's even worse than we said it was," Mann, who has studied Congress for four decades, added in an interview.

There's blame on both sides, but Pryor's fate encapsulates a driving force behind the current state of affairs.

Republicans, forced further right by the tea party, have pursued a strategy of opposing Obama at every turn. That left little room for compromise (look what happened to Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a conservative who dared to work with Democrats on immigration) and hence passing legislation. Big deals are rare, and budgets reduced to short-term measures, often approved at the very last minute as happened last week, that spur uncertainty in the business sector.

Politically, however, it worked. In November voters ousted Pryor, who was denounced in ad after ad as an Obama ally, and a number of other incumbent Democrats to give Republicans control of the Senate when the new Congress convenes in January; the GOP has held the House since 2010.

"The American public isn't enamored with Republicans. They just got very upset with Democrats and voted them out," said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, who has expressed frustration with his party's just-say-no approach but also blames the Democratic-controlled Senate for rejecting hundreds of bills passed by the House. "Now we have to show the American public that we are solution-oriented."

Ross wants to see Republicans offer alternatives for health care and address immigration - sentiment echoed by another Florida Republican, Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores.

"Put a bill on the president's desk every week and ask him to own his own legacy: Veto it, sign it, negotiate with us," Jolly said.

Obama has said he's willing to work across the aisle "to make the next two years as productive as possible," but will face resistance from his liberal base. He's already sparked a war by acting alone on immigration. Republicans are determined to spend the first part of the next Congress reversing the executive order that temporarily protects as many as 5 million undocumented residents from deportation, and have vowed to keep up attacks on the Affordable Care Act.

But Republicans realize they have to show the public more than that. Jolly generated headlines in September when he sent a letter to GOP leaders and said lawmakers should be in session longer. It's common for work to begin Tuesday and end Thursday; work goes on in districts, but that's typically constituent service or photo-ready events.

The Hill, a newspaper focused on Congress, reported in September that the House would be in session for only eight days during a 102-day span between Aug. 1 and Nov. 12, the rest of the time focused on the election. That worked out to lawmakers earning $608 an hour for those eight days based on a 10-hour day and an annual $174,000 salary. The work hour estimate is generous, as new members are advised to spend up to four hours a day making calls to raise money for the next election.

"If we're in session more, Republicans and Democrats have more opportunity to work together and get to know each other," Jolly said. "The American people should demand Congress work harder on these issues."

The 113th Congress is, by one measure, the least productive in modern times.

When it is all over, it will have led to the fewest enacted bills since the early 1970s. Through Friday, 201 have become law, down from 283 in the last Congress. It's not the best guide - more legislation is cobbled together in one bill than in the past - but it does illustrate the broken system.

Many Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, argue that is a good thing. There should be less government, fewer laws, they say. But Boehner's House has also spent an inordinate amount of time on theater; voting more than 50 times to repeal, gut or alter Obamacare, for instance.

"There is a deliberate effort to make sure this president goes down in history as being ineffective," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. "It's very sad because this country has suffered."

The percentage of legislation that is closed to amendments has increased steadily in the past two decades, from 9 percent in the 103rd Congress (1993-94) to 48 percent in the current Congress, according to research by Donald Wolfensberger, a congressional scholar at the Wilson Center & Bipartisan Policy Center.

Boehner has had to contend with newer waves of Republicans aligned with the tea party and demanding severe budget cuts and no wiggle room on immigration reform. Compromising is ground for a primary election challenge, where much of the threat lies due to gerrymandered districts. Boehner's attempts to cut deals with Obama and Democrats have often backfired spectacularly.

Senate Democrats have pushed their own "message" votes that have no chance of passing the opposite chamber and are designed to appease base voters or put opponents on the defensive in the next election.

Soon-to-be Senate minority leader Harry Reid had long infuriated Republicans for blocking amendments or refusing to allow votes on legislation. "The traditions of the Senate were badly injured in the last four years," said retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Is there a way out?

A number of observers say the only remedy, for now, may be unified party control. House and Senate Republicans have planned a joint retreat next month in Hershey, Pa., to shape a legislative strategy. They cannot ignore Democrats entirely, especially given the Senate's filibuster rules and Obama's veto power. So some cooperation may be necessary or Republicans could face their own voter backlash.

Voters are not optimistic. Nearly nine out of 10 Americans doubt Republicans on Capitol Hill will be able to work together with Obama, according to Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday. Robert Cole, 65, a retiree from Ocala, told the Associated Press that blame rests on both parties - and voters.

"They're not doing their jobs," Cole said, "and we as the electorate are stupid in sending the same people back and expecting things to change."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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