When Congress returns from its (hopefully relaxing!) Christmas/holiday break next week, both Senate Democrats and House Republicans expect to begin work on their policy priorities. Differing policy priorities, of course. Voters are skeptical that the federal government can get much of anything done, a new Associated Press poll reports — a skepticism that, given that this is an election year, seems very much warranted.
The New York Times reports that 2014 is slated to begin where 2012 left off in the House. Speaker John Boehner says he'll push for immigration reform again, considered a key move for the Republican Party given its slumping numbers with Latino voters. Boehner has hired a staffer from the office of Arizona Sen. John McCain, with the goal of advancing "'step by step' moves to revise immigration laws," the Times reports. This paragraph is perhaps the most telling:
The most likely legislative approach, according to lawmakers, White House officials and activists, is a push to pass legislation in the House by May or June — after most Republican lawmakers are through with their primary campaigns — with the goal of reaching a compromise that Mr. Obama could sign before the 2014 midterm election campaigns intensify next fall.
See that? Wait on immigration reform until after members of Congress have to face staunch conservative opposition in primary battles but pass it before the general election when far more Latino voters will head to the polls. Not a bad move, politically.
But that May/June timeframe means that the House will spend the first half of the year, at least, pushing for heavily conservative priorities. And not just the House, either: a (growing) number of Senate Republicans will face primary challengers backed by conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund. Those challenges already spurred a minor insurrection against the budget deal in December, with Republican senators using the vote as way to send a message to primary voters about their conservative credentials.
And if the House spends the first half of the year passing bills meant to appeal to conservative voters, the odds that those measures clear the still-Democratically-controlled Senate are small. 2013 was a year of record unproductivity for Congress. 2014 is slated to repeat that sluggishness, at least at first.
Americans have noticed. "When asked how confident they are that the federal government can make real progress in solving each of the problems they identified as important for the government to address in 2014," the Associated Press states drily of its new poll, "Americans report very low levels of confidence." On each of the top 11 priorities voters indicated, more than half of respondents assumed little progress would be made.
In part, that's because of the same divide that will split the House calendar this year. Conservatives (and whites) are far more likely to express skepticism about the role of government and pessimism about the future of the country. Democrats (and people of color) are more likely to have confidence – though not a lot of it. And the priorities differ by political philosophy as well, as you might expect. For example: "People who identify with the tea party movement are more likely to mention issues related to health care (67 percent vs. 52 percent) or politics (50 percent vs. 25 percent) than others." As primaries approach, expect more legislation aimed at curtailing Obamacare.
When the Senate returns on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is planning on introducing a bill to extend unemployment benefits to the long-term unemployed, according to The Hill. 1.3 million people lost benefits last month when they were allowed to expire. Reid's skeptical, however, that the House will take up the measure, calling the body a "black hole of legislation." The House has its own priorities, starting the year on Tuesday with a push to block the EPA's environmental regulations — which likely wouldn't go anywhere in the Senate.
Respondents to the AP poll had one suggestion for reforming Congress: put the poll respondents in office. More than half figured they'd do a better job in Congress than Congress itself, as you can see in the graph at right. But, then, they don't have to run for reelection.