Members of Congress better have used this past Fourth of July recess to relax, because now they have a ton of work to do. The 113th Congress has been vilified as the government's most inefficient and unproductive branch, and is already well on its way to be worse than the inefficient and unproductive 112th Congress. This inefficiency and unproductiveness has occurred because we as a nation elected a divided government — reflecting deep divisions in Americans' views on issues such as gun control, immigration, and the budget.
Congress is operating exactly as its electoral makeup would predict, which is unfortunately not the way we want it to operate. We as Americans are optimistic in thinking that even with a divided government, Congress should operate as usual with cooperation and compromise to get things done. But when Democrats and Republicans have such different views on what "America wants" on all of the issues facing Congress today, such productivity is almost impossible.
So Much to Do, So Little Time
So far under the 113th Congress, only 15 legislative items have become law. This is fewer that the historically low 23 items that became law at this same time in the 112th. Obviously, this means Congress has a lot on its plate at the same time it's more divided than ever. Here's a list of some of the important items that need Congress' attention:
1. Immigration: After the 68-32 passage of the immigration bill in the Senate, legislators must work to find a way to pass it in the House. Republicans oppose Senate bill's provision that promises a path to citizenship for those living in the U.S. illegally, especially without the guarantee of airtight border security.
2. Farm Bill: The bill failed in the House last month in a surprising 195-234 vote even after Boehner called on Republicans to fall into line and lend their support. Hard-line conservatives are pushing to split the legislation into farm spending and food stamps bills and severely cut food stamp programs. Democrats want to keep the bill intact with modest changes.
3. Student Loans: Student loan interest rates rocketed from 3.4% to 6.8% on July 1 after Congress failed to reach a deal extending lower interest rates. This is an important issue to fix fast, as student across the country will soon be taking out loans to pay for college in the fall.
4. Gun Control: This issue is still extremely important and has unfortunately fallen to the wayside. Ever since the defeat of the compromise bill in the Senate in April, no other serious effort has been made to bring it back to the floor.
5. Budget: With the fiscal year ending on September 30, Congress must finish up spending bills to fund essential parts of the U.S. government. The federal government is also still dealing with the effects of sequestration, which nothing seems to be being done about. The House is to vote on the Energy Department's spending bill this week.
6. Nominations: Republican resistance to Obama's nominations has held up the confirmations for several key administration positions, especially those of Tom Perez for Secretary of Labor and Gina McCarthy for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. These nominees must be confirmed soon so these important federal agencies have proper leadership.
Any Weapon is a Good Weapon
With full knowledge of how intractible the divide in government has become, both parties have been finding any means possible as a way to exert their political influence. As the minority in the Senate, Republicans have resorted to using obstructionism as a tool. Without the ability to bring legislation to the floor without the approval of the Democratic majority, the most effective way for Senate Republicans to have their voice heard is to push against any majority-supported measure that can gain Republicans political favor through opposition. This is why confirming Obama's nominees has been such a painful process in the Senate. Republicans have used it as a tool to protest Obama's administrative scandals and ask questions about Obama's leadership. Since Democrats do not have the votes to single-handedly reach the 60 votes now necessary to avoid filibuster and pass anything in the Senate, they have searched for other ways to get things done. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has indicated that he wants to amend Senate rules to scrap the 60-vote threshold for a simple majority.
Moreover, each party has viciously played issues against each other for petty political points. Nominations are a weapon to attack Obama's scandals and Republican obstructionism. The farm bill and food stamps are a means to attack Democrats on federal spending issues and Republicans on not caring about the poor. Immigration is a means to attack Republicans on their inability to protect minorities and Democrats on their inability to secure our borders. Student loans are a tool to paint Republicans as not caring about students as well as to paint Democrats as not caring about fiscal responsibility. The list goes on and on.
Is There Still Hope We Can Count On?
We Americans hate so much what Congress has become. Ironically, though, we elected Congress to be this way. But this does not excuse Congress for its inefficiency and inability to compromise.
Yes, a divided government means productivity will be low. But that's okay. What matters is what Congress does end up producing. Congress has done a good job at bringing issues that are of pressing and overarching concern into the legislative spotlight. Now comes the hard part of passing solutions that both sides can agree on and not hard-lining positions for political favor. As the time to midterm elections lessens, so does the time Congress has to pass meaningful legislation with compromise, as electoral concerns are still relatively far away. The 113th Congress can make sure that important legislative issues are properly debated and passed, but it must work hard and it must work fast.