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Bad year for US Congress

Very little achieved by US Congress throughout 2013, with a similar scorecard expected over 2014.
Last modified: 1 Jan 2014 04:43

It’s safe to say, 2013 was a bad year for the US Congress. From seemingly endless political showdowns to a partial government shutdown, America’s top legislative body managed to accomplish very little – except argue. In order for a bill to become law in the United States, both chambers - the House of Representatives dominated by Republicans, and the Senate, controlled by Democrats - must approve it. This didn’t happen. It’s just one reason very few laws of importance to Americans were passed.

Instead, 2013 was the year the US Congress chose to govern by crisis. On the rare occasions where Congress did agree, it only seemed to do so at the 11th hour, and after much fighting and political finger-pointing. Now, Congressional politicians are paying the price. Congressional approval ratings are at historic lows. The outlook for 2014 isn't much better, and that's frustrating ordinary Americans like community organiser Nkechi Feaster.

She told Al Jazeera that some days, it is hard to stay motivated. She's frustrated with her elected representatives.

“They're not working for me. They’re not working for the average American citizen,” she said. “I think that Congress and certain government officials live a pretty cushy and unrealistic lifestyle.”

Low ratings

This is a view shared by most Americans. Approval ratings in 2013 averaged just 14 percent, which is among the lowest approval ratings for Congress in its history. Politicians did not agree on gun control laws, raising the minimum wage or immigration reform to allow more than 11 million undocumented immigrants a chance at citizenship.

That's because, in part, US politicians also had record levels of inactivity in 2013. The US Congress passed just 60 bills in 2013. That’s far less than the 295 Congress passed in 1947 when then President Truman labeled the legislative body, a "Do Nothing Congress". Despite the fact that Congressional members collect a minimum salary of $174,000 a year, most pressing domestic issues in 2013, went unaddressed.

Melanie Sloan is the Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit government watchdog group. She told us Congress has not only been missing in action, it is done serious harm.

"To call this one a "Do Nothing Congress" is really generous, she said. “Because, rather than simply do nothing, they have done real damage to the country. They’re hurt our economy, they’ve hurt the international economy, they’ve left children out in the cold, not going to school, They’ve made sure that people aren’t eating and they’ve made the Defense Department not ready. These are just a few of the things that have happened," said Sloan.

Indeed, some of the biggest stories to come out of Congress in 2013 had little to do with legislation and a lot more to do with political point-scoring. Instead of taking up high priority issues, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted more than 40 times, to repeal President Obama’s healthcare law. That of course, led to a partial government shutdown in October which lasted 16 days.

The upper chamber, the US Senate, wasn't much better. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, held up legislation for a day to protest healthcare reform, at times reading from the children's book, Dr. Seuss, to run out the clock on the session.

"Congress is finishing this year less popular than a cockroach,” the top Senate Democrat, Harry Reid, told reporters.

Different strokes

Big projects that Congress have been left unfinished as lawmakers bolted for Christmas recess. Politicians failed to approve legislation that would allow thousands of Americans to do the same. Lawmakers failed to extend federal unemployment benefits so just days after Christmas, more than a million Americans lost financial support they relied on while they searched for work. This, despite the fact that long-term unemployment in the US is still at its highest level since World War II. Congress did not stop there. It also failed to confirm Janet Yellen as the Chairwoman of the Federal Reserve.

Feaster shakes her head.

"Congress is not living in the world that everyone else lives in. They have much more security that they've created for themselves. They maintain it for themselves while everyone else has been forgotten about."

"I think it's frustrating for the vast majority of Americans. I think Americans want to see an effective government. They don't want to see things like government shutdowns and yet we've set up a situation where we're likely to see reoccurrences," said Sloan.

Sloan told us she has few hopes next year will be any better. 2014 is an election year. Come November, the politicians in the House of Representatives and much of the Senate will be up for re-election. Precedent shows this is historically a recipe for legislative inactivity and few bi-partisan agreements on Capitol Hill. More political warfare is likely, as politicians focus not on legislating but on campaigning to keep their seats.

"People look at our government shutdown and how really childish it is and say that our government is just a bunch of small children running amok," said Sloan.

"It’s not surprising that America’s stature is really shrinking around the world."