Congress logs most futile legislative year on record

Outlook for House, Senate also shows scant accomplishment for ‘12 session

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Last year’s fights were focused chiefly on the budget, spending and taxes. The House took hundreds of votes on spending bills during the early-year debate on the overdue fiscal 2011 measures and again throughout the summer when it debated the 2012 bills.

The 2011 statistics and the grim outlook for 2012 pose the question of whether Congress is simply reflecting a country divided 50-50 along political lines or whether it is no longer reflecting the country at all.

Ms. Binder, the Brookings scholar, said she believes the public is less polarized than the legislators. She said the more likely explanation is that, with the rise of Republicans’ fortunes in the past few decades, each party believes control of all the levers of government is within reach — as it was for the GOP for much of President George W. Bush’s term, and as it was for Democrats in 2009 and 2010.

“That’s a natural consequence of neither side wanting to compromise. They want the whole loaf, and they’d settle for just having an issue to campaign on rather than just come to the middle for a bigger, grander compromise,” she said.

The focus on spending also has taken away some areas of compromise. On non-spending issues, Congress is often able to find a middle ground, such as with Mr. Bush’s education bill in 2001.

Ms. Binder said that is tougher to do in spending fights because the two parties are drastically opposed on fundamental principles.

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