Lame duck ends on a wing and a prayer
The "lame duck" Congress limped to an end and was able, despite gridlock, to make some accomplishments.
For the record, this was the 113th elected Congress. Historians have already labeled it the "least productive" Congress in decades. NBC researchers found only 203 bills became law, down from the previously least productive 112th Congress, which enacted a then-record low of 283 laws.
Conservatives say the low number reflects their preventing bad bills from becoming law, but that ignores a great many bills that have to do with keeping the government running. A lot of good bills were deep-sixed, such as a bill enhancing suicide prevention for veterans.
The House had left Capitol Hill a week earlier, leaving one chamber dark and empty while the Senate light shown in the night. Harry Reid worked his way through gridlock like a farmer sidestepping cow pies in a pasture. In fact, some things got done -- wait for it -- because Sen. Ted Cruz tried to obstruct a bill. Instead, Cruz mistakenly opened the floodgates for the confirmation of a huge backlog of ambassadors, agency heads and federal judges.
It's been the practice for the entirety of our republic for the opposing party to let the elected president have his choices of CEOs to run the government. Through most of our history, only controversial nominees were delayed for a closer look by the Senate.
But for a Congress that looks more like an abbey of political theologians than a chamber with practical politicians, each of Obama's nominees was deemed controversial. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prepared to let scores of posts go unfilled, just so the Senate could pass a spending bill and adjourn.
Enter Ted Cruz, who apparently sees a path to the presidency by opposing his party's leaders and becoming the leader of the "Radical Right." When the spending bill came up to fund the government, Cruz stopped a vote. Cruz's sticking point: House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted to fund Homeland Security (which handles immigration) through March, then revisit it.
But, Cruz wanted to defund Homeland Security right away to stop Obama's immigration order (it's debatable, even among Republicans, whether that would work). Cruz's move also posed the risk of a government shutdown.
Senate rules are complicated, but the upshot of Cruz's parliamentary maneuver required the Senate to meet an extra day. That allowed Reid time to hold votes on dozens and dozens of Obama appointees. Thanks to Cruz, the U.S. government, having been without a surgeon general for over a year because the NRA opposed the nominee, now has one to deal with Ebola and public health issues.
Reid, almost gleefully, got 69 Obama appointments confirmed by the Senate. He enabled the executive branch to have the manpower needed to run its agencies. The Senate confirmed appointments for posts in the departments of State, Energy and Veterans Affairs, among others.
Cruz's misstep also allowed Reid and the Democratic lame duck majority to confirm over a dozen lifetime judges to the federal courts. That brings the total number of district and circuit court judges confirmed in the 113th Congress to 132, the highest number confirmed since 1980.
The New York Times' First Draft summarized the confirmation flurry: "Democrats believe they have managed to bolster the executive branch for the remainder of Mr. Obama's time in office while reshaping the federal judiciary for a generation."
There were three areas of bipartisan cooperation under Democratic leadership in the Senate: A five-year farm bill was passed, reforms were made in the beleaguered Veteran Affairs and, of course, the spending bill to fund the government through next September was agree upon.
Reid also managed to push through, by an astonishing 76-16 vote, an extension on tax breaks for the middle class. Among many extenders was mortgage debt relief, a tax deduction for personal funds that teachers spend on their classrooms and tax incentives for businesses to create jobs.
Many are so thrilled to see any bipartisan accomplishments that it's easy to mistake it for a victory. But funding the government and extending tax breaks is avoiding a total disaster. That is a "save," not a victory.
Reid told The Washington Post, "There's a lot more we should and could have done." And Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Texas, in his farewell address, said, "When Congress puts party labels aside, like we did on VA reform, we can accomplish some great things for the American people. But those occasions were far too rare."
Tons of business will spill over into the 114th Congress. Among unfinished business is a bill that retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, killed that would have reauthorized the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA). There is also a lingering long-term transportation bill and a rapidly shrinking Highway Trust Fund to deal with.
The 114th Congress will have the legislative branch under Republican management for the first time since 2006. Its productivity will be higher than the 113th to be sure, but we will need to wait to see what bills it passes to judge its accomplishments -- and if the president will concur with his signature, or oppose with his veto power.
This should make for an interesting new year.
© 2014, Universal Uclick