Advancing a Legislative Agenda in the Face of Historic Congressional Gridlock

This entry was posted by Wednesday, 10 October, 2012
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Stop me if you’ve heard this before:  What’s the opposite of progress?  Congress.

Whether your reaction is a groan or a quiet chuckle, we react to that joke because we all know there is an element of truth to it, especially these days. 

The 112th Congress stands to be the least productive Congress since World War II.  Of the approximately 11,000 bills introduced so far in the 112th Congress, only 169, or 1.5%, have been enacted into law*.  This enactment rate is just over half of that of the previous Congress, and less than half that of the 110th Congress. To get a sense of the historical magnitude of the gridlock, consider the fact the 80th Congress, dubbed the “do nothing” Congress by President Harry S Truman, enacted 7.5% of the bills introduced.  Since then, Congress has generally enacted between 3% and 6% of the bills introduced; the exceptions have been the Congresses in which the number of bills introduced has been substantially more than the norm.

Taking a closer look at the number of bills actually enacted, the gridlock in the 112th Congress is further magnified in comparison to its modern predecessors, which, on average, enacted 609 bills into law.

This is not to suggest that the 112th Congress is sitting idly by doing nothing.  Each chamber has passed its share of bills (613 have passed the House; 519 have passed the Senate), but few are getting to the finish line.  Throughout the Congress, the House has engaged in a practice of sending bills to the Senate that have no chance of being considered by, much less passing, the upper chamber.  While the Senate’s quantity of bills seems on par with its counterpart, most of these bills are honorifics; substantive lawmaking has been the exception not the rule.  Between April 2011 and August 2011, the Senate did not pass a single bill “regular order,” meaning it was brought to the floor, debated, opened to amendment and passed.  Digging deeper and looking at the committee level, the Senate Banking Committee, the committee to which the Credit Union Small Business Jobs Act has been referred, has reported out only four pieces of legislation – the Export-Import Bank Reauthorization, an Iran Sanctions bill, the Flood Insurance bill and a resolution establishing the committee’s budget. 

Congress’s ability to get even the most routine legislation enacted has been severely curtailed.  Legislation that historically receives broad bi-partisan support, like the farm bill, the surface transportation bill and the defense authorization bill, has encountered significant resistance and delay.  Congress enacted none of the appropriations bills before the end of the fiscal year.  Hyper-partisanship rules on Capitol Hill; consensus is elusive; gridlock is the result.

Now, there is a strong argument to be made that the best Congress is the Congress that does the least, but that’s not the case when you’re advocating an agenda that requires Congressional action.  The current legislative and political environment has made it extraordinarily challenging for credit unions – or any other group for that matter – to move its legislative agenda.

With Congress recessed until after the election, the focus now turns to the post-election – lame duck – session.  While Congress has already punted the appropriation process into the next Congress by enacting a continuing resolution which funds the government until March 2013, there is no shortage of issues which need to be addressed before the end of the year.  The failure of the Super Committee to produce a recommendation to reduce the deficit has set up a sequestration process which will result in significant spending cuts to defense and non-defense programs, unless Congress acts to reduce the deficit before the end of the year.  There are several tax provisions, including the Bush tax cuts, which will expire unless Congress acts.  The farm bill and the highway bill remain on the table.

Assuming the election produces the status quo – that is, that the president wins reelection, the House remains in Republican control and the Democrats retain their majority in the Senate – one could foresee the potential for a robust post-election session.  It is reasonable to assume that some of the acrimony dissipates post-election; defeated or retired members may feel a bit more freedom to participate in compromise approaches to the outstanding issues; and the leadership may have greater incentive to get issues off the table so they don’t hang over the next Congress.  However, even if those assumptions play out, there is no guarantee that it will produce solutions to problems that have divided Congress and the nation for so long. 

The clock provides significant leverage to those who seek to keep things from happening.  When Congress returns on November 14th, they will face a short week before Thanksgiving.  When they return after Thanksgiving, there will be just four weeks until Christmas.  After Christmas, the Congress has only a week until it expires and the new Congress convenes.  It’s a remarkably short period of time for a Congress which heretofore has demonstrated almost no ability to enact even the most routine pieces of legislation much less solve the nation’s greatest problems of the day.  Frankly, the fact that the chambers haven’t even been able to agree when to recess speaks volumes about the potential for the lame duck.

Prospects for a robust lame duck session, complicated under the best of circumstances, may completely evaporate if the elections result in a change in control of the presidency or either chamber of Congress.  If the president fails to win reelection, Congressional Republicans have little incentive to work with him after election; if Republicans gain a majority in the Senate, the Senate Republicans could effectively block all action until their numbers improve after January 3.  Likewise, if the Democrats were to hold the presidency and the Senate and pick up the House, it is not outside the realm of possibility that they would punt big decisions into the 113th Congress.

So, where does that leave groups, like us, who have common sense, job creating legislation ripe for consideration before Congress?  We’ve been promised a vote on the Credit Union Small Business Jobs Act before the end of the year.  Will we get the vote?  Will we win the vote?  Can we get this done? 

The answer to all of these questions can be “yes.”  Congress will be here for several weeks after the election and they will have measures on the floor.  While nothing is certain, the promise of a vote seems as firm as possible at this stage.  Winning the vote depends on our ability to solidify and expand on the support we have in the Senate.  We’ll need the people most invested in the success of this legislation to speak out and speak loudly.  The deck is stacked against us:  while the bankers who oppose us are formidable, our greatest challenge to getting this done is the fact that the Congressional process has essentially collapsed.  We’re fighting not just the banks, but also historical Congressional gridlock.

*All statistics are as of August 28, 2012, unless otherwise noted.

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