The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 1, 2014

Delegation pessimistic about 2014 Congress

By Brett Neely
Minnesota Public Radio News

---- — Washington — Dysfunctional. Broken. Do-nothing. Those are a few of the more polite adjectives slung at Congress, which has set a record for passing the fewest laws in decades — just 57 by the middle of the session.

In a year in which public approval of Congress plummeted, members of Minnesota's delegation say the year on Capitol Hill was unproductive.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 5th District, calls the current Congress one of the "most dismal" in history.

"When we have acted, it was basically to stop an ongoing crisis or to avert one," he said.

Ellison points to episodes such as last year's fiscal cliff - - resolved only around the stroke of midnight at New Year's -- and the partial government shutdown and debt ceiling increase.

As members of the minority party in the Republican-controlled House, Ellison and his Democratic colleagues have had little chance to influence legislation.

From the other side of the aisle, the session didn't look as bad.

"We got some things done," said U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican who represents Minnesota's 2nd District.

Among the successes of this year's session of Congress, Kline cited a bill he helped shepherd that overhauls the federal student loan program.

"We've actually been pretty busy, and we have got some things all the way across the finish line and signed into law and some through the House and ready to go for Senate action," Kline said.

However, many of the bills passed by Republicans in the House wind up facing veto threats from the White House and vows from Senate Democrats to ignore the legislation.

The difficulty of finding consensus in divided government is at the heart of many complaints about 2013.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, hopes lawmakers use the budget deal passed this month to build wide bipartisan support in both chambers.

"My frustration has been that we cannot bring both houses together, and I hope that this is a start," she said.

Like Kline, Klobuchar could recite a stream of bills that passed the Senate, where Democrats are in the majority, only to make little progress in the House. They include the farm bill and an immigration overhaul.

None of the outstanding grievances between the two parties are much closer to being resolved in 2014.

Among them is the Affordable Care Act, which continues to experience a rocky rollout with the public.

When asked what the GOP's policy agenda was likely to be in next year, Kline quickly brought up the health care law.

"I think that clearly will be a discussion item going forward, and I think it helps Republicans," he said.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat from the 8th District, has been extremely critical of the meager legislative output of this Congress compared to when he last served 32 years ago, although he takes credit for a few bills that passed.

"I'm glad to say a couple of them are mine because I didn't spend any time across the street dialing for dollars," he said.

Nolan referred to recommendations by Democratic campaign officials that he devote much of his time to fundraising at Democratic Party headquarters a few steps away from his office.

One of the bills he helped pass makes it easier to for small aircraft manufacturers to certify their airplanes -- which helps a significant industry in his district.

It's a bigger legislative record than many of the other members of the delegation can claim.

For Nolan, the tendency for congressional leaders to resolve almost every major issue among themselves and behind closed doors has helped drive the public's disapproval of Congress to new highs.

"It's become a very undemocratic institution," he said. "We've got to change the way we do politics in this country if we want a Congress that works and a government that isn't broken."

Very few members of the delegation have high hopes for 2014 and they expect campaigning for next year's midterm elections to get started in earnest by next spring.