The 113th Congress, which just ended its first year, has come to be defined more by what it hasn't done than what it has. With two warring and ideologically polarized parties controlling either end of Capitol Hill, Congress has more or less become a quagmire for policy.
Still, one of the least productive Congresses of the modern era was able to accomplish a few things in 2013. Here are five of them:
1. Going Nuclear
After reaching the limits of frustration with Republican use of the filibuster, Senate Democrats ended the minority party's ability to use the tactic to block most nominations. For nearly a decade, whichever party held the majority threatened to change Senate rules so that most presidential nominations could move forward to an up-or-down floor vote with just a simple majority vote, rather than a supermajority. The warring parties always managed to reach an agreement and avoid the so-called nuclear option before. But not this year. The minority can still filibuster on Supreme Court nominations and legislation, but not most nominations.
2. Nation's Second-Most Powerful Court Expands
The filibuster crackdown gave Senate Democrats the chance to put four of President Obama's judicial nominees on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Because that court often considers challenges to federal regulatory agencies, it's considered second only to the Supreme Court in power. The addition of Obama's appointees to the appellate court brought to six the number of judges picked by Democratic presidents, versus four chosen by presidents named Bush.
3. A Budget Deal Was Spawned
In December, Congress passed a budget resolution. In an earlier era, that wouldn't have been such a big deal. But the decades of increasing political polarization resulted in this being the first time since 1986 that Congress has been able to agree on a budget resolution. The two-year deal put off another government shutdown for at least that long, no small accomplishment in present-day Washington. The pact also narrowed some across-the-board sequester spending cuts in coming years.
4. Congress Didn't Stop Completely
Almost, but not quite. Despite its dysfunction, Congress managed to pass 58 pieces of legislation through Dec. 25, 57 requiring President Obama's signature (the budget resolution doesn't need his approval). On the downside, that number made it the least productive first session for a Congress since 1973, the first year we have comparable data for, writes Josh Tauberer on Govtrack.us. Some legislation was monumental, like the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act and Hurricane Sandy relief. Then there was a piece of legislation that renamed an IRS code section after a former senator.
5. More Famous People In Stone
OK, so it was a stretch to come up with five achievements for this Congress, given its notorious lack of productivity. More Capitol Hill statues doesn't really rank up there with major legislation, but immigration and new gun control laws didn't happen and the statuary accomplishments did. There were unveilings of statues of civil rights icon Rosa Parks and noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and a bust of Winston Churchill, the British bulldog of a statesman. At least they gave Congress a rare opportunity for bipartisanship in an otherwise stressful year. The hope has to be that the current unproductive climate and toxic partisanship doesn't last as long as those statues.