WASHINGTON — Measured by legislative accomplishments or public approval, the 112th Congress comes up short. As a path to getting members re-elected Nov. 6, it will be a success for the vast majority of lawmakers.
When Congress recesses until after the election, lawmakers will leave behind a pile of unresolved issues. Chief among them are the expiring George W. Bush-era tax cuts and $1.2 trillion in automatic spending reductions set to begin in January. Upon returning to the Capitol for a mid-November lame-duck session, Congress also must address expired farm programs, set Defense Department spending and troop levels, and reauthorize U.S. wiretapping of suspected terrorists without court warrants.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who is retiring after this year, criticized Congress’s plans for an early departure this month. She said that when she was seeking a second term in 2000, the Senate stayed in session until six days before Election Day.
“The Wednesday before the election I thought I was having an out-of-body experience,” Snowe told reporters. “I was still driving around here and my election was Tuesday. It was really surreal.” She won re-election that year with 69 percent of the vote. In February, Snowe cited her frustration with political gridlock in announcing she wouldn’t seek a fourth term.
“The point is we have a job to do,” Snowe said this week. “The Senate right now, and the Congress and the president are not addressing the key issues that matter to people.”
Polls indicate that this crop of lawmakers remains one of the most unpopular in recent U.S. history. Still, voters will return most of them to Washington in January.
“How voters perceive their own member of Congress isn’t necessarily connected with the way they perceive Congress,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “Generally voters have a much more favorable view of their own representatives than they do of Congress.”
Thirteen percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, according to a Gallup Poll released Sept. 14. That’s the lowest congressional approval rating Gallup has recorded so late in an election year. The Sept. 6-9 telephone survey of 1,017 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.
A month earlier, public approval of Congress’s performance fell to 10 percent in Gallup’s poll, tying a record low set in February.
“This Congress has been judged by almost everybody as the least productive, most confrontational Congress in a very, very long period of time,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters.
Still, the reality is that few congressional seats will be competitive on Nov. 6.
As of Sept. 13, 344 of the 435 House seats, or 79 percent, were rated as solidly Republican or Democratic, according to the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that tracks congressional races. An incumbent is seeking re-election in 304 of the seats considered safe by Cook, meaning about 70 percent of current House members are considered likely to return.
Of the 22 senators seeking re-election this year, 12 are in contests that Cook rates as solidly Republican or Democratic. Seven are considered to be leaning toward one or the other party and three are rated as tossups.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat seeking a second term this year, said Congress’s low approval represents an “anxiousness” among the electorate, stemming largely from uncertain economic conditions.
“I don’t think that affects incumbents one way or another unless you’ve been part of the problem,” Brown said. Polls show Brown leading Republican challenger Josh Mandel, the state’s treasurer.
The only notable piece of legislation Congress plans to send to President Barack Obama from its two-week September session is a stopgap funding measure to keep the government operating from the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year through March 27, 2013. Lawmakers plan to finish their work within the next few days.
The stopgap measure is necessary because Congress didn’t enact any of the 12 annual bills to fund government operations, and government funding expires Sept. 30. Farm programs also expire at the end of the month — lawmakers are poised to let them lapse.
“Farm bills any time are complicated efforts,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. and former agriculture secretary. “This is even more complicated by elections and strategizing and political posturing.”
While each party blames the other, there is bipartisan consensus that Congress hasn’t been productive.
Thirty-eight Senate Republicans Thursday came to the floor to protest congressional inaction, which they blamed on the chamber’s Democrats and Obama.
“The fact that we have an election coming up is not an excuse for not tackling the tough problems,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
As of Sept. 20, Congress had sent 84 bills to Obama for his signature this year. Many name post offices and convey land parcels, and most of the rest extend programs lawmakers had already passed.
Lawmakers are on pace to mirror 2011, when they sent 90 bills to Obama that became law. Last year’s output barely topped that of 1995, when 88 bills became law, fewer than at any time since the Congressional Record started keeping track in 1947.
Legislative inaction this year has stemmed largely from Republicans, who control the House, and Democrats, who control the Senate, banking on gaining more bargaining power by winning more seats and the presidency in the election.
“I hope Obama will see a second term,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat. “We know under the Constitution it will be his last term, and perhaps that will change the attitude on the Republican side a little. Maybe they will be prepared to sit down and work with us.”
With assistance from Richard Rubin, Sam Kussin-Shoptaw and James Rowley in Washington.