2013 was the least productive year for Congress on record.
(Photo: Cliff Owen, AP)
WASHINGTON -- Congress is on track to beat its own low record of productivity, enacting fewer laws this year than at any point in the past 66 years.
It's a continuing slide of productivity that began in 2011, after Republicans recaptured the House majority in the 2010 elections, and the ability to find common ground has eluded the two parties while the legislative to-do list piles up.
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The 112th Congress, covering 2011-12, emerged as the least productive two-year legislating period on record, while 2013 is on track to become the least productive single year in modern history.
According to official legislative statistics, 52 laws have been enacted through early November. It is the lowest record of legislative activity since at least 1947, when the data collection began. The lowest prior year was 1995, with a new Republican House, when only 88 laws were enacted.
Matt Bennett from Third Way, a center-left think tank, said the prospects for a legislative rebound in 2014 are dim, with Congress on a continued course of gridlock. "We do not see any evidence that there is a real possibility for breakthrough next year," he said.
Congress is out for a Thanksgiving break, but when they return just two weeks remain on the House and Senate 2013 legislative calendars.
The legislation Congress has failed to advance this year is weightier than the year's accomplishments. Bills that became law include measures to revamp the federal student loan system, aid Hurricane Sandy victims, and provide cost-of-living adjustments to military veterans.
But the bills left undone cover a sweeping spectrum of issues.
The Senate has passed a comprehensive immigration bill, but the House hasn't taken it up yet - although GOP leaders say they will still act.
A farm bill that sets the nation's agriculture policy has languished in negotiations, and action on a defense bill has ground to a halt in the Senate in part over how to change policy to address sexual assault in the U.S. military.
The House and Senate passed budgets this year, but the divided chambers could not reconcile the two fiscal blueprints to pass annual spending bills, or find a way to fix unpopular, across-the-board cuts known as the sequester. The divides have dimmed prospects for an overhaul of the federal tax code, which House Republicans voiced strong support for at the start of the Congress in January.
The impasse contributed to the 16-day partial government shutdown, the first time in 17 years Congress failed to approve at least a stopgap funding bill to keep the lights on.
The partisan divide over the Affordable Care Act and ongoing GOP efforts to repeal the president's health care law have soured relations on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to invoke the "nuclear option" and lower the vote threshold from 60 to 51 votes to approve presidential executive and judicial branch nominees threatens to further deteriorate cross-party relations in the Senate.
The most pressing item on the legislative agenda is a Dec. 13 budget deadline for House and Senate negotiators to reach a framework for spending levels for the remainder of the 2014 fiscal year through Sept. 30, and a short-term reprieve from the sequester cuts. But negotiators have been candid that even a small bargain could elude them, setting up another fiscal confrontation when government funding runs out Jan. 15.
"Some will say that this is the new normal, that the era of big reforms brought together through bipartisan compromises is over," said Clarine Nardi Riddle, a former congressional aide and co-founder of No Labels, a nonpartisan group that advocates for congressional reforms and increased bipartisanship, "We're certainly hopeful. We want to be part of turning it around."