WASHINGTON -- Members of the House and Senate are gathered together in the same building this week for the first time in 2012, ready to kick off a new legislative year. Based on conventional wisdom, they should hardly bother.
"Nothing gets done in an election year." That phrase, a go-to explanation for why difficult and controversial issues are so often omitted from the agenda in even-numbered years, is echoing again in the halls of the Capitol.
Grand bargains, entitlement reform, overhauling the tax code: That's all so 2011. This year, both parties appear far more focused on what has to be done, rather than what could be done, though neither side professes to be happy about it.
"That has certainly been my impression, that it's tough to get anything the least bit controversial done," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., arguing that Congress needs to try to tackle Social Security and Medicare reform this year, regardless of the election.
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., predicted that "this year won't be any better than last year. It could even be worse."
Based on raw numbers, 2011 was one of the least productive congressional years in memory. So far in this Congress, Sherman said, "At the very last minute we prevent government shutdowns or defaults. That's as close to (doing) nothing as you can get while averting disaster."
The 2012 must-do list isn't short, by any means. Lawmakers must deal with the looming expiration in February of the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits and a "fix" to prevent a cut in payments to doctors under Medicare.
They also need to move a Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill, a prospect that got more likely after a bipartisan compromise was reached last week, which is a measure to fund surface transportation projects and a handful of expiring tax breaks.
The House is expected to pass its version of the fiscal 2013 budget while the Senate may choose to punt it for the third consecutive year. Republicans and Democrats will eventually have to agree on appropriations bills, though such a deal could well slide to a postelection lame-duck session.
Both chambers also will likely tackle one or more job-creation bills, but it's unclear whether a bicameral deal is possible.
"The House is going to remain relentlessly focused on jobs," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "We hope that the Democrats who run Washington will join us, election year or no."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sees the issue differently, saying earlier this month that he hoped "my Republican colleagues have learned from their recent mistakes" and would now work with Democrats on jobs legislation. Last week he was a bit more positive, pointing to the FAA deal as evidence that "every issue does not have to be a fight."
President Obama's sweeping health care bill was an exception to the election-year rule, in that it began its legislative journey in 2009 and wasn't signed into law until March 2010, months later than its backers had originally hoped. Obama saw his "cap and trade" energy measure pass the House in 2009, but the Senate never took it up.
President George W. Bush's plan to create private accounts within Social Security rose and fell in early 2005, and his immigration reform proposal was considered and killed by the Senate in the summer of 2007. President Bill Clinton's balanced-budget deal with congressional Republicans came in 1997, though he did sign welfare reform legislation in August 1996, less than three months before an election in which his party gained seats in the House.
Going back further, Congress has managed to move some notable measures in even-numbered years. The House and Senate moved major civil rights bills in both 1964 and 1968, and President Ronald Reagan signed sweeping tax reform into law in 1986.
"It's an overstatement to say 'nothing gets done,' but it's certainly true that it's much harder" in an election year, said Senate Historian Donald Ritchie.
This year could be even less productive than some past election tilts, with Congress wildly unpopular and bipartisan relations at a low ebb following Obama's controversial recess appointments of four administration officials.
Neither party wants to give the other any political advantage with an election looming, nor do lawmakers in potentially difficult races want to take tough votes. A huge deficit-reduction deal that extracts pain from all sides could hurt individual lawmakers from both parties at the ballot box, even if it could ultimately help Obama's re-election by making him look like a strong leader.
That all adds up to an agenda thin on landmark legislation.
"Which is really unfortunate," Gingrey said, "because if not now, when?"