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Capitol Report: December 3, 2013

 U.S. Capitol Building (small)By Della B. Cronin

As Washington and the country start to look to the holiday season and the break that it provides to Congress, substantial work lies between lawmakers and flights home for holiday cheer. Most notably, education advocates are watching carefully as Congress struggles to avoid another federal government shutdown and works to develop a federal budget that addresses the devastating cuts required by sequestration. The latest reports suggest that we may see one or two more temporary spending bills before we have a long-term agreement. In other words, we may be in for yet another legislative debate without a satisfying outcome.

While NCTM and education advocates have been busy on Capitol Hill sharing their views, watching hearings, and responding to policy proposals, pundits and others have started quantifying what this Congress has done. The math isn’t pretty. Congresses convene for two years, and the 113th Congress—the current one—is just about halfway through its term. Folks who look at what the country’s legislative body has or hasn’t done say that the 113th Congress is on track to go down as the least productive in history. Furthermore, now that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has invoked the “nuclear option,” which denies Republicans in the Senate the right to filibuster judicial nominations, the wronged party hardly seems eager to work across the aisle in the coming year.

To date, this Congress has passed only 49 acts that President Obama has signed into law. (It’s worth noting that one of the most recent ones will change how schools stock and administer epi-pens for students who need them.) That’s the fewest since 1947, the year when the annual tallies began. To get some perspective on the current tally, consider that the 80th Congress, which that had enacted 388 laws by July 1947, was famously dubbed the “Do Nothing Congress” by President Harry Truman.

Statisticians have noted that over the last 66 years, only four congresses have enacted fewer than 100 laws by this point. It might not be surprising that two of those instances were in the last two congresses. The 112th Congress had passed only 62 laws through November 2011. Education advocates are directly affected by this dysfunction. The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has languished since the 110th Congress, at least. The Workforce Investment Act hasn’t been revised since 1998. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act hasn’t been updated since 2006. The Higher Education Act was rewritten in 2008, but that revision took 10 years to achieve. And education policy isn’t the only casualty—immigration reform, the farm bill, and the basic process of funding federal programs all provoke partisan bickering.

Political experts suggest the current level of dysfunction is partially the result of the toxic relationship between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans, and point to the first government shutdown in 17 years as evidence, as well as a series of flirtations with a defaulting on the country’s debt. Furthermore, the issues facing the country exacerbate the frustrations inside and outside the Beltway. For starters, the nation faces the $17 trillion debt that the country carries, the prospect of a second government shutdown in mid-January, the troubled rollout of the health-care law, and what to do next there—not to mention overseas threats from places like Iran.

In Congress, no one on either side of the aisle looks good. Both sides are admittedly embarrassed by their collective performance, although each assigns blame to the other. Parliamentarians and other experts in the process of legislating argue that a significant part of the problem is structural. The schedules of the House and Senate aren’t well coordinated, which can make efforts to work out thorny issues more difficult. In addition, the annual budget process hasn’t run the way it should for at least a decade, forcing the process to consume more time, involve more players, and provoke more partisan game playing every year. Regardless, neither the House nor Senate will spend much more time in session this year. It hardly seems that they will be adding to their total of 49 laws before 2014 arrives.

Della B. Cronin is with Washington Partners, LLC

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