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For a year that started with a bipartisan leap to avert the fiscal cliff, members of Congress are leaving town without much to show for 12 months of work. In fact, the 113th Congress is on track to be the least prolific since the “do-nothing Congress” of 1947-1948, surpassing even its immediate predecessor in overall legislative futility.

Perhaps appropriately, the first session was punctuated by a two-week shutdown of the federal government, the first in 17 years. It should come as no surprise that the least productive Congress in modern history is also the most dysfunctional.

The stage for the shutdown showdown was set in the summer of 2013, when a handful of Tea Party-aligned legislators huddled with outside conservative grassroots organizations to devise a strategy for stopping the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). Led by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the group settled on a push to “defund” the law via congressional purse strings. With the fiscal year and temporary government funding measure ending the day before the Oct. 1 launch of the federal health insurance exchange, this approach was viewed as a last stand to stop the PPACA and its entitlements from taking root. An August barnstorming tour and media campaign popularized the approach among the Cruz and Lee Tea Party base, culminating in a dramatic 21-hour floor speech by Sen. Cruz to promote the defund effort. A line in the sand was drawn: Republican legislators must oppose any appropriations bill that funds the health care law…or else.

After weeks of political posturing and media buildup, the House and Senate failed to come to an eleventh-hour agreement and the shutdown ensued. The Republican-controlled House sent a watered-down offer that would have funded the government while repealing or delaying key components of the PPACA, but Senate Democrats, heartened by public polling, simply did not engage. House Republicans found some traction in passing rifle-shot funding bills for popular, consensus programs, but not before the looming debt ceiling breach took center stage. Unprepared to weather the brunt of a self-inflicted financial disaster, House leaders signaled to Senate negotiators that they would accept.

Once the stalemate ended, chastened House Republicans agreed to a deal that funds the government through Jan. 15, 2014, and suspends enforcement of the debt limit until Feb. 7, 2014. The agreement also included creating a budget conference committee tasked with hashing out a long-term budget deal by Dec. 13, 2013.

The committee, led by Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), consists of 29 members of Congress. The majority of their negotiations are focused on what to do about the
across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester, as well as the spending caps enacted by the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Rep. Ryan and the Republicans oppose raising additional tax revenue. Sen. Murray and the Democrats want to end the tax breaks that benefit the “wealthy.” And the sides remain nearly $100 billion apart in their topline spending numbers. In such a short amount of time, it seems unlikely they’ll come to an agreement on what has divided these parties for hundreds of years.

Happy holidays, America! The government may or may not shut down again.

Kristen Swearingen is senior director of legislative affairs for Associated Builders and Contractors. For more information, visit www.abc.org.

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