WASHINGTON - Back in 2009, during the heady days of hope and change, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced 90 pieces of legislation. In 2013, amid gridlock and dysfunction, he sponsored just 35 bills. None of them became law.
It was a familiar pattern. Members of Congress from both parties introduced fewer bills last year than in similar legislative years over the past decade. They cast fewer votes than usual. And, as has been noted, they passed fewer laws than in any other year in recorded congressional history.
Set to begin a new session Monday, lawmakers are struggling to find optimism that 2014 will mark a pivot point for an institution whose historically low approval rating has been at or below 20 percent for three years. Last year seemed to bring a rock-bottom moment - not just in the public’s view but also across the Capitol, where ambition withered among lawmakers themselves.
"Legislators give up on the process, and either before or right after they’ve done that, the people that we work for give up on the process," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a 17-year veteran of the House and the Senate. He summed up the malaise that some members of Congress feel: "Whenever anybody tells me, ‘I’m frustrated with the way the Senate and the Congress are working,’ I say, ‘I fully understand; I’m more frustrated with this than you are.’ "
The year ended with a bright moment when bipartisan groups in the House and the Senate agreed to a budget framework for 2014 and 2015.
Rather than a reprieve, however, that modest bill presented a challenge: Can lawmakers continue to forge compromises between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-dominated Senate, or was the budget deal a brief flicker of comity?
"We could show the American people how you do legislation in a divided Congress, and it takes a lot of work, and you have to listen to each other, and you have to be respectful of each other, which I think, in general, has been lacking," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who co-sponsored the budget deal with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The first big hurdle comes with a Jan. 15 deadline, when the current funding authority ends for the federal government. Congress must approve a detailed spending outline for fiscal 2014 from the $1 trillion framework Murray and Ryan agreed to in a single massive bill, in a manner that has been criticized by liberals and conservatives alike.
In late winter, Congress faces another familiar deadline: increasing Treasury’s borrowing authority or else risking a default. After that comes another critical test: the annual ritual of writing budget resolutions and then trying to pass 12 spending bills that would provide 2015 funding for federal agencies, as opposed to the catch-all 2014 measure.
It’s what Congress calls "regular order" - but there has been nothing regular about the process for nearly a decade. All this comes on top of the ongoing efforts to pass a far-reaching immigration overhaul and enact a new farm bill.
Some lawmakers are optimistic that things can turn around. Brown, for instance, said his legislative output dropped last year because he was to trying to be smarter, offering fewer bills and amendments destined to go nowhere and instead searching for bipartisan partners such as Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who is working with Brown to reform big-bank lending practices.
"I pick my fights better," he said.
Others remain miserable.
"I don’t feel like I’m in a Disney movie, I feel like it’s Friday the 13th," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. A longtime dealmaker, Graham introduced 61 pieces of legislation in 2009, a personal record, but just nine bills bore his name in 2013, according to GovTrack, an independent legislative-data-analysis firm.
Odd-numbered years, when lawmakers spend more time in the Capitol because there are no elections, are known as the first session of a two-year Congress and traditionally see the heavy lifting of legislative scut work. More votes are cast and about two-thirds of all bills are introduced, said GovTrack’s Josh Tauberer.
Overall, 2,280 pieces of legislation were offered in the Senate in 2013. That sounds like a lot, but it is down 33 percent from 2009, and it’s the lowest first-session total since 2001.
Comparing House Speaker John Boehner’s first year in charge with his third year, the drop-off is noticeable: Last year, the House cast a third fewer votes than in 2011, and it approved almost 11 percent fewer pieces of legislation. Compared with 2011, the Senate saw a 20 percent drop in bills approved, and last year it cast the second-lowest number of votes of any first session this century.
When it came to passing both chambers and becoming law, just 72 bills made it all the way to the White House. That’s easily the lowest tally for any year.
Some observers say that simply measuring output, without assessing the quality and import of those bills, misses the mark. For instance, amid all the outcry over congressional dysfunction in 2010, 2011 and 2012, Congress still managed to pass a bounty of landmark laws, including the Affordable Care Act and two tax-and-budget bills that brought a combined $2.8 trillion in deficit savings.
Last year was a legislative wasteland. Among the laws enacted, it’s impossible to find a significant new accomplishment. Some important provisions passed - such as revisions to the Violence Against Women Act - but those just modified existing laws.
Congress couldn’t even keep the lights on, as the federal government partially shut down during a 16-day standoff in October.
Veterans on the Hill say they feel the emotional drag of dysfunction more than newcomers do. "It has more impact on me, because I remember the day when we did something. And when we could offer amendments, debate them and move on. I remember that day," said Sen. Dick Durbin, Ill., the No. 2 Democratic leader, who was first elected to the House 31 years ago.
Durbin and other Democrats cast blame on what they say are Senate Republicans’ stalling tactics. "We have wasted so much time this year on obstruction," he said.
Yet that overlooks what was a highly productive first half of 2013, in the Senate at least. On sweeping roll-call votes, the Senate approved a water resources bill (83 yes votes), a farm bill (66 votes) and immigration legislation (68 votes), and it passed a budget resolution for the first time in four years.
Those bills then languished in the House, where a far-right contingent blocked Boehner’s ability to approve his version of legislation. Instead, the Senate spent the final months of the year fighting about rules governing the confirmation of Obama’s nominees. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., executed an unprecedented party-line rules change, limiting filibusters, Republicans erupted and warned of spillover effects this year.
"Changing the rules has hurt the body," Graham said.
Expectations are already being lowered for the new year. When Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced in April that he would retire in 2015, the Finance Committee chairman dedicated his final months in office to an ambitious plan to simplify the tax code. By mid-December, with tax reform on political life support, Baucus accepted Obama’s nomination to be ambassador to China.
Boehner continues to suggest that he supports some type of immigration reform, but a Friday memo from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., outlining the agenda couldn’t have been more vague. "Several outstanding issues may be brought to the floor over the next few months, including: the intelligence authorization, flood insurance, as well as legislation related to trade and immigration," Cantor wrote.
For Murray and Blunt, both members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, the most basic step will be writing and approving the 2015 funding bills for federal agencies. With the large infusion of new lawmakers in recent elections, majorities of the House and the Senate have never seen that system work in the usual manner.
Murray and Blunt both suggested that if Congress could just complete those steps this year, it could pay longer-term dividends down the road.
"If this would work just one time, it would be a huge demonstration to a huge percentage of both the Senate and House that have never seen it work that there is a reason for the long, hard work," Blunt said. "In legislating, as in life, there is a normal order of things. You can occasionally violate it and get away with it and actually look brilliant, but if you violate it over and over again, eventually you’re going to wind up with big problems."