The 112th Congress came in with a bang, but it is crawling out with the soft whimper of failure.
For two years, President Barack Obama and Congress ignored virtually every other pressing matter to engage in an ideological war over the size of government and who should foot the bill for it.
They racked up more processes than policies: a blue-ribbon White House commission, Vice President Joe Biden's working group, bilateral talks between Obama and Speaker John Boehner, a "supercommittee," a "Gang of Six" that became a "Gang of Eight" and, finally, Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) coming to a deal that leaves open as many politically thorny issues as it solves.
They didn't even hit their deadline. The Senate voted two hours past the zero mark of midnight on New Year's morning, and House Republicans spent most of Tuesday wrangling with each other over whether and how to move forward -- with a final late-night vote that passed the Senate bill on the strength of a majority of House Democrats and a minority of House Republicans. Their uncertainty was a stark reminder of how fractious the House majority has been over the past two years. After all, the bill had just passed the Senate with all but five Republicans supporting it.
The deal isn't a pure punt: Obama got a scaled-back version of the tax hike he sought on the campaign trail, with the two sides agreeing to set $450,000 -- rather than the $250,000 he wanted -- as the income threshold at which tax rates would rise from 35 percent to 39.6 percent. Republicans won by locking in the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts in a "permanent" fashion rarely seen on Capitol Hill. Moreover, they compromised on provisions that resolved for the long term the rates taxpayers will pay on capital gains, dividends, estates and alternative minimum taxes.
But the measure took two steps back for each step forward. It forestalled the "sequester" spending cuts that the president and Congress agreed to in the summer of 2011. More glaring, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the deal would add $3.9 trillion to the debt over the next decade because of lost revenue from locking in rates on individual income, estates and investment, as well as renewing tax breaks for individuals and corporations. The bargain was so chock full of goodies, including the extension of a tax cut for NASCAR track owners, that the Senate, after two years of stalemate on budget matters, gave it 89 votes.
"It's such a sad kick-the-can-down-the-road solution. We had all hoped to do something of great magnitude and put this issue behind us," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). "This is again us not living up to our responsibilities."
Corker said he was so upset at watching "paint dry" in the Senate that he thought seriously about not seeking re-election this year "just because of the lack of productivity."
"We're not solving our nation's problems. People hide from tough decisions," he said. "So it's been very disappointing."
The deal also sets up yet another budgetary Armageddon in March, when Congress and the president will have to deal with raising the debt ceiling, the hanging sword of sequestration cuts and the expiration of federal spending authority. For House Republicans, the date is circled on the calendar as a chance to claw back some of the concessions made in the agreement struck by Biden and McConnell.
"There's lots of leverage on the spending cuts to come," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who last month signaled Republican willingness to raise taxes on top earners to avoid a political calamity, said in an interview on CNN Tuesday night.
This Congress had no signature achievement -- no Bush tax cuts, no Medicare prescription drug law, no big energy-production law, no lobbying reform, no bank bailout, no health care overhaul. One small measure of the failure: This Congress will leave town having enacted fewer laws than any since 1947, when such statistics were first kept. The very best the 112th Congress could manage, in its last dying gasp, was to avert the worst. Time after time, the most basic functions of government were left to last-minute, half-a-loaf deals that narrowly avoided shutting down federal agencies, cutting off funds for road projects and letting unemployment insurance lapse in the midst of economic strife.
"[I]t should be embarrassing to all of us that it took until the last hours of the last day of the year to address an issue we should have dealt with months ago. This marks another sad chapter in what has been the least productive Congress since 1947," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted for the tax deal. "Moreover, the fact that we're again kicking the can down the road with a short-term measure rather than moving forward with the fundamental tax and entitlement reform we all know our nation needs is yet another signal of the lack of leadership at all levels in Washington today."
The 113th Congress will be sworn in on Thursday. The members of the 112th Congress just hope they don't get sworn at.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a liberal Democrat who represents Wall Street, said there's little question where this Congress ranks in the two decades he's served on Capitol Hill.
"I think it's the worst," he said, pointing his finger at House Republicans for using the debt-ceiling as leverage. "They figure we'll get what we want because we're right and if we don't we'll destroy the country. ... It's like a guy in a gangster movie who says, 'Nice economy you got there, pity if should happen to blow up if you don't pay me protection money.' And they use that tactic. And that destroys the ability of people to work together or for Congress to get things done."
Republicans pointed their fingers across the Capitol at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), repeating the age-old line that the Senate should have just taken up House bills and sent them to the president.
"We spent a lot of time waiting on the Senate to do their job," Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said. "I think that leaders make choices and the one that Harry Reid made was one of inaction."
The truth is that the vast majority of lawmakers were rendered meaningless, as tax and spending decisions were made not by committees of jurisdiction but by a handful of leaders who led only at the midnight hour.
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who won a Senate seat in November, lamented the breakdown in "regular order" -- a term used to describe the normal process for legislation.
"[I]t's been frustrating to see a lack of regular order. Regular order is where the Congress exercises its constitutional role by limiting appropriations, by conditioning appropriation bills. Without regular order, we weren't able to do that," Flake said. "We've done a lot more can-kicking than bill-passing."
Still, Flake said there's a significant win for the GOP in the deal with Obama. Because of arcane congressional budget rules, the 2001 Bush tax cuts had a sunset provision. But most of the new policies would not have to be renewed.
"If we can make tax cuts that were previously temporary permanent, then we ought to declare victory. It's a big victory," Flake said. "I wish we could make all the tax cuts permanent, we can't. But to make most of them, for more than 90 percent of Americans, permanent, that's a victory for Republicans."
And House Republican sources note that spending cuts implemented by the 112th Congress, at the GOP's insistence, represent a major shift in direction that they believe is good for the country.
Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Pennsylvania Republican, said campaign politics were an obstacle to getting more done.
"This Congress seemed to be overly consumed with the presidential election in particular, and as a result not a lot happened. I can't say that there any great signature legislative achievements during this Congress, so I'd have to say overall it was not a very productive two years," he said.
Sen John Kerry (D-Mass.) blamed the campaign calendar, too.
It was a "long presidential campaign, longer than I remember," the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee said. "I think that's had an effect on it."
Kerry said the Congress was "not as productive as it should have been" and that "a lot" of the legacy of the 112th hung on the fiscal-cliff deal.
Dent predicted the new Congress will improve on this one's record.
"It'll have to," he said. "I do think that the fiscal challenges facing the country are so great that they will demand leadership from both the White House and Congress. I also argue very strongly that I suspect at some point the markets are going to react and I think the American public is expecting us to put this country on a strong fiscal trajectory and that means we're going to have to deal with very significant tax and entitlement reform."
And Corker, despite his frustration, said he has high hopes for the future -- the reason, he said, that he's satisfied with his decision to seek re-election.
"I am probably more energized than I've ever been, for what it's worth, to deal with our issues," he said.
But a Congress that opened with the arrival of the much-heralded tea party descended into a two-year food fight, and it will leave the mess to its successor.
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