New Congress, Same Issues

The 112th Congress was the most polarized, and the 113th isn't likely to be much different.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio swears in members of the 113th Congress, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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A new Congress and new presidential term, like a new year, have historically been characterized by a fresh agenda, with lawmakers offering ideas for new programs, new ways to operate old programs, and a new vision for the country. The ideas didn't always make it (such as former President George W. Bush's talk about private accounts for Social Security), and they sometimes took several Congresses and presidential terms to pass (healthcare overhaul, for instance). But the promise of a clean slate has long given rise to policy innovation, even when the White House has been controlled by a different party than the houses of Congress. Former President Bill Clinton enacted welfare reform with a new Republican-led House that had made the issue part of the "Contract with America.'' Bush began his first term with a successful push for sweeping education policy reform, resulting in the No Child Left Behind law. President Obama, painfully, managed what several of his predecessors had tried and failed to do, winning divided congressional and Supreme Court approval of a sweeping healthcare law.

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The 113th Congress, which was sworn in Jan. 3, has no such policy ambitions or vision. After no traditional December transition period (the Senate rang in the new year with a debate and wee-hours vote to avert the fiscal cliff, and the House was in on New Year's Day to complain about the Senate bill before voting to approve it as well), the new Congress stumbles in already weary from the battles during the 112th. True, there was talk about doing something about gun safety after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, but those discussions have already abated. There are some hopes about tackling immigration reform, but lawmakers in both parties say they can see roadblocks that could thwart the compromise necessary to get it done.

And neither of those issues was the product of a new policy directive; both were driven by events. The gun control chatter came only after first graders were shot. The immigration talk resurfaced only after savvy Republicans took a hard look at the demographics of their failed 2012 presidential campaign and realized they needed to reach out to Latinos to survive as a competitive party.

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The new Congress will be all about the old issues. Having barely averted a fiscal and market disaster by passing a modified extension of tax cuts for lower- and middle-income people and a continuation of unemployment benefits, Congress will return to the same old money fights: tax reform, spending cuts, and the debt ceiling. Instead of debating the grand ideas patriots in both parties see as quintessentially American, legislators will be relegated to cleaning up the crises from earlier Congresses. And there is no new goodwill between the two parties to make this effort any easier.

"If you look at our fiscal situation right now, with the president refusing to be an adult and address it," the agenda will be all about spending and debt, says Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican. "The fiscal cliff is one chapter in a book that's going to unfold over and over again."

Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, blames what he calls an intransigent group of new Republican members he says lack education or the desire to learn. "They don't read. They don't travel. I don't think the word 'compromise' is in their lexicon. They see it the way they see it," Cohen says. "I think it's just going to be more fighting. I don't see any program this Congress can [agree on]."

The new recruits to Congress inject some fresh voices, but that does not necessarily foretell new alliances. The Senate in particular welcomes a few progressive Democratic freshmen, such as Massachusetts's Elizabeth Warren and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, who have emboldened liberals in both chambers.

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"We won the election. The people expect us to do bold things," says Sen. Tom Harkin, a progressive Iowa Democrat. "I don't think that means we don't compromise, but we compromise more to our side, because we won." And while the House is still GOP-run, liberals in the chamber feel they've acquired more authority with the Democratic pickups and Obama's re-election, notes Rep. José Serrano, a New York Democrat. In the last Congress, "progressives in the House would say something and it would fall on deaf ears in the Senate," Serrano says. "Now, when you see these [election] victories, it makes you feel you have more friends in the other chamber."