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2) New debt.The Congressional Budget Office counted $1.3 trillion in new debt last year. Preventing new and higher taxes is key, but it must be accompanied by serious and meaningful budget cuts. The fact that Congress continues to show no stomach for this necessary step offers a big clue as to why public disapproval is so high.

3) Gridlock. It can often be a good thing, especially when there are bad ideas to shoot down. But the gridlock in 2011 was often needless. Worse, conservatives always seemed to lose policy battles in the end. It was hardly encouraging; for example, to see the Ryan budget plan abandoned when the time came to pass the annual appropriations bills.

4) Government shutdown.Washington came within minutes of one last April before a compromise was finally worked out. The final deal cut projected increases in spending, but brought no serious reforms to the federal government. Stopgap measures to avoid making things worse are better than nothing, but conservatives need to start winning the bigger battle.

Will Congress will do better in 2012? That depends on how willing lawmakers are to make difficult decisions.

Take the “cut, cap and balance” plan, which won House approval in July. It’s good to see lawmakers stand behind an effort to make substantial spending cuts, pass enforceable budget caps, and pass a strong Balanced-Budget Amendment. But unless Congress redoubles its efforts to turn these good intentions into reality, lawmakers will stay unpopular back home.

Do they really want to do that, especially in a major election year?

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).