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Congress meets low expectations

By Mark Hamrick ·
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Posted: 1 pm ET

The Senate has followed the House's lead by passing a bipartisan budget agreement. With that, the so-called upper chamber soon heads home for the holidays. This is the biggest "accomplishment" by Congress this year, which avoids a government shutdown through 2014. Lawmakers said they wanted to prove they could get something done. But is avoiding a second shutdown really something to brag about?

This Congress is going down as one of the least productive in modern history. With approval of the budget measure, it has passed just 58 laws this year, according to The website's founder, Josh Tauberer, says that's the lowest number since 1973, the beginning point for digital records held by the Library of Congress. He notes that back in the 1970s the pace for new legislation was around twice that number. Tauberer says most of the laws passed this year "weren't really interesting," noting that they included naming a stretch of Interstate 70 and an air traffic control facility.

Congress' approval ratings remain near all-time lows. According to, barely more than 10 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. President Barack Obama gets a favorable rating of more than 40 percent, but that's still well down from the peak. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that most people surveyed, or 51 percent, said the 113th Congress is "one of the worst" based on performance and accomplishments.

When Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has cautiously addressed the economic impact of Congress, he's spoken of "fiscal drag" or "headwinds." Over the past year, he's referenced the Congressional Budget Office, or CBO, estimate of a negative impact, including from mandatory budget cuts. In retrospect, the damage to the economy was real. "The fiscal drag likely did lop off the 1.4 percent the CBO anticipated," says Jeffrey Rosen, chief economist for

Despite Washington's reputation for dysfunction, the economy is showing signs of getting back to normal. More jobs are being created. The stock market has raced to record highs in 2013. Hugh Johnson, chairman of Hugh Johnson Advisors, says the market mostly stayed on track because investors kept faith. "Investors collectively again were right. We didn’t go over the cliff, although clearly we could have numerous times," says Johnson.

Johnson says "a stalemated Congress is really not a good thing," although a fair number of market pundits tend to say they'd prefer relative inactivity by Congress and regulators. "Essentially, after considerable brinkmanship, Congress did agree on and even compromised on tax increases, spending cuts, an increase in the debt ceiling and a budget," says Johnson.

Congress engaged in legislative damage control as this year drew to a close. Perhaps lawmakers are embarking on the political equivalent of a 12-step recovery process by recognizing there's a problem.

What are your hopes for government in the year ahead? What grade would you give lawmakers?

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