Congress was full of postponements in 2023. Now 2024 could be even less productive.

By: - January 3, 2024 3:20 pm

Even when the House and Senate brokered deals in 2023, several of the laws passed were just short-term extensions, allowing members of Congress to delay the tough job of compromise on big-picture legislation until 2024. Pictured is the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 2, 2024. (Photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

WASHINGTON — Congress got next to nothing done during the past year and could accomplish even less in 2024 as attention shifts to the November elections.

House Republican and Senate Democratic leaders reached agreement on bills and resolutions they sent to the president’s desk just 34 times during the first year of the 118th Congress — making that session the least productive in decades.

Even when the two chambers brokered deals, several of the laws passed were just short-term extensions, allowing members of Congress to delay the tough job of compromise on big-picture legislation. They’ll need to tackle the farm bill, reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration and approve more than $1.5 trillion in federal spending this year, just to name a few of the unaddressed items.

Rank-and-file lawmakers aren’t entirely pleased with the lackluster results and have no insight on what leaders might bring up this year, outside of the pressing issues they’ve avoided dealing with and now must confront again in 2024.

Texas Republican Rep. Chip Roy rebuked GOP leaders, saying during a floor speech in mid-November that for years he’s heard nothing but “excuses” and “empty promises.”

“I want my Republican colleagues to give me one thing, one thing, that I can go campaign on and say we did,” Roy said. “Anybody sitting in the complex, if you want to come down to the floor and come explain to me one material, meaningful, significant thing the Republican majority has done besides saying, ‘Oh, it is not as bad as the Democrats.’”

Oklahoma Republican Rep. Tom Cole, chair of the House Rules Committee, said in late December he hadn’t heard what legislation would move through his committee this year, but doesn’t expect much.

“Look, it’s divided government in a presidential year,” Cole said. “I don’t see us moving a lot of big legislation. I think the appropriations bills, and whatever the two sides agree should be attached to them, is probably the best you’re going to get.”

Cole said Democrats, who control the Senate, are just as much to blame for the low number of laws as Republicans, who control the House. But, he noted that it’s not necessarily a bad thing for Congress to be less productive than normal.

“If you’re Republican, you believe in less government, and not doing something is sometimes a good thing,” Cole said. “Just because we passed a law, doesn’t mean it was a good law and doesn’t mean it has a positive effect. But again, I think it’s more a function of what the distribution of power is, how polarized the country is right now.”

For the last three decades, Congress has been significantly more productive during its first session, typically passing at least 90 public laws in that first year.

On just two occasions have lawmakers not reached that benchmark; during the 117th Congress when there were 81 public laws during the first year and during the 113th there were just over 70 public laws.

Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Agriculture Committee, said there won’t be much time left in 2024 after factoring in work on the farm bill, government funding legislation and the elections.

“I’m continuing to work hard to get a bipartisan farm bill and work through issues related to that,” Stabenow said. “And then there certainly will be other things that need to be addressed as well. But way too much time is going to be taken up by appropriations.”

The elections, she said, “will take a lot of the attention” away from legislative work in Congress.

“They always do,” Stabenow said.

Shutdown headaches

Congress isn’t set to return to Capitol Hill until Jan. 8, less than two weeks before a Jan. 19 deadline to complete work on four of the government funding bills. The deadline for the remaining eight bills comes two weeks after that, on Feb. 2.

Lawmakers were supposed to approve the full dozen bills before the start of the current fiscal year on Oct. 1, but they’ve used two stopgap bills to push off making any final decisions.

Senators will need to continue negotiations on border security and immigration policy in order to move forward with a $110 billion emergency funding package for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and U.S. border security.

Republicans have insisted they won’t approve the emergency funding until there’s a bipartisan agreement to change when and how immigrants, including asylum seekers, are allowed to enter the United States.

Lawmakers will need to address a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration after passing a short-term, temporary extension in December.

Republicans and Democrats will need to broker a deal on how to reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, especially the section of the law that allows for warrantless searches of the electronic communications of non-citizens living outside the United States.

The program has been criticized by members of both political parties for several reasons, including that the process inevitably gains access to Americans’ phone calls, emails and other forms of communication without a court order.

Lawmakers will need to reach a bipartisan deal on the five-year reauthorization of the farm bill, another must-pass piece of legislation that Congress did not actually finish work on last year.

In the Senate, Democrats are expected to keep confirming President Joe Biden’s judicial and executive nominations. That task would likely fall along the wayside if Republicans gain control of that chamber in November and Biden remains president.

Impeachment could move ahead

James Comer (Getty Images)

In the House, lawmakers could become increasingly occupied with the GOP’s attempts to impeach Biden, though Speaker Mike Johnson insists he’s not going to bring that to the floor before there’s sufficient evidence.

Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, said during his last press conference of 2023 that he viewed impeaching Biden as a legal decision and not a political one.

But he declined to set a timeline for an impeachment vote, despite calls from some conservative members to move quickly, possibly before the 2024 presidential election.

“If you follow the Constitution and you do the right thing, you cannot rush it,” Johnson said.

The House began an unofficial impeachment inquiry into Biden last year when Kevin McCarthy was still speaker. After Johnson became speaker, the chamber voted along party lines in December to open an official impeachment inquiry.

Oversight and Accountability Chair James Comer of Kentucky, Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan of Ohio and Ways and Means Chair Jason Smith of Missouri are the three GOP lawmakers leading up the impeachment inquiry.

Election overwhelms everything else

Republican lawmakers in the House and Democratic senators aren’t entirely sure what else may make its way onto the floor next year, though they all expect the November elections will overshadow Congress.

The entire House and one-third of the Senate will be up for reelection. Voters will also decide whether Democrats maintain control of the White House or if they want a Republican to sit in the Oval Office once again.

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said during the first half of next year he plans to focus on the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual policy bill that lawmakers just approved in December but will need to debate and pass all over again this year.

Congress could take up a Supreme Court ethics bill, following a string of stories from ProPublica exposing lavish gifts and trips that Justice Clarence Thomas took without disclosing, Kaine said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a new code of ethics for the nation’s highest court in July, but that bill hasn’t made its way onto the floor. The justices released their own ethics code in November, but many critics of their transparency said it didn’t do enough.

“I think Supreme Court ethics would be a good thing to vote on,” Kaine said.

Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Good, incoming chair of the House Freedom Caucus, said in mid-December that he expects the group of far-right lawmakers will have input into that chamber’s legislative agenda.

Good didn’t list any bills he wants leadership to put on the floor this year but said “we’re having discussions about that very thing.”

Republicans, Good said, need to be “united as a party in cutting our spending, securing our border and defending our constitutional freedoms.”

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, declined to say if there are any bills he wants party leadership to bring to the floor next year to highlight the differences between the two parties.

But he did say there will be “no shortage of ways to show … the clear differences between Democrats and Republicans.”

“We’ll highlight that in the campaigns and we’ll continue to do that next year,” Peters said.

Florida Republican Rep. Kat Cammack said she’d like to see the House take up an overhaul of the spending process and border security legislation, but she noted that many of the GOP bills won’t move through the Democratic Senate.

“We can’t control the Senate,” Cammack said. “And the Senate has been exceptional in the sense they have not picked up hardly anything that the House has passed.”

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Jennifer Shutt
Jennifer Shutt

Jennifer covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include congressional policy, politics and legal challenges with a focus on health care, unemployment, housing and aid to families.

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