The 113th Congress convened on Capitol Hill on Thursday, with several new faces facing old issues.
Though a reported 90 percent of the U.S. House and Senate members who sought re-election won their seats, the reputation of the 112th Congress isn’t one to be proud of. Political infighting and gridlock on many serious issues rendered it the least productive in legislative terms since Congress began such records.
The public’s dismay is reflected in the numbers.
The 112th Congress was the most unpopular in decades. Its approval rating in November was 18 percent, according to a Gallup poll, and has been consistently low. In February 2011, the Congress had an approval rating as low as 10 percent. And when compared to its predecessor, the 112th Congress failed miserably at passing legislation -- passing only 219 bills, while the previous Congress passed 383 bills into law. (And that, in turn, was fewer than the 110th Congress, which passed 460.)
So what’s ahead for the 113th Congress? Well, the first job would be to be more productive than the one before. But just how possible that will be is another story. Twelve new senators -- eight Democrats, three Republicans, and an independent -- along with 82 House freshmen including 47 Democrats and 35 Republicans have been added to the team of lawmakers. They have their work cut out for them.
Here are some of the top issues that the 113th Congress will face:
When the last Congress finally compromised and passed a tax increase for the top 2 percent of earners this week, there was a sigh of relief as America was pulled back from the so-called fiscal cliff. However, there are at least two other fiscal cliffs ahead that need to be averted if the nation is serious about getting its fiscal house in order. The fiscal package passed by the Senate and adopted by the House of Representatives did nothing to address America’s spending problem, pushing the so-called sequestration cuts off until March. Before addressing that, though, Congress will need to address the debt ceiling problem in late February, when the Treasury Department expects the U.S. government will reach its current borrowing limit.
The economy is growing slowly, but experts and President Barack Obama have said it is moving in the right direction. Ensuring that the upward trend continues also depends on whether or not the President and Congress can act as they discuss the ballooning debt. Will job creation be a part of the debt-ceiling talks? Hiring held up during the fiscal cliff negotiation, with employers adding 155,000 jobs in December. But despite the job growth, the unemployment rate remained steady at 7.8 percent, according to the Labor Department.
The killing of 26 people, including children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last month, thrust the issue of gun control back into the spotlight. Obama has promised to “advance efforts aimed at preventing more tragedies like this,” and in doing so gave Vice President Joe Biden the responsibility for heading a task force that will draft a plan for curbing gun violence. It will be a touchy issue for the 113th Congress, as it is an emotionally charged one for both advocates of gun control and supporters of gun rights, headed by the National Rifle Association.
Obama has said immigration will be one of his main concerns in his second term. Latinos helped him to victory in the 2012 election, especially in some of the contested battleground states. While composing only 10 percent of the electorate, 71 percent of Latinos voted for Obama, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study.
The study showed that Obama carried Florida’s Hispanic vote 60 percent to 39 percent. This was higher than the 57 percent to 42 percent he got in 2008.
Obama plans to introduce legislation on immigration reform in his first year this term. Reports are that it will include a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. He also plans on giving special visas to foreign workers, imposing tougher penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers, and boosting border security. But he may have a hard time pushing such a bill through the Republican-controlled House.
Last month, Obama said that along with immigration, his second-term agenda will also focus on climate change and energy. Climate change wasn’t a big issue in Obama's campaign, but after Hurricane Sandy in late October, 2013 could be the year when lawmakers begin a serious national debate on the dangers of climate change. Scientists have been saying for years that weather patterns are changing, and if Sandy is any indication, storms are becoming more damaging.
“I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions,” Obama said last November after his re-election. “And as a consequence, I think we have an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”
The Obama administration is investing in clean energy and has called on Congress to eliminate tax breaks for the oil and gas industry.
As House Speaker John Boehner put it, trying to silence Republican voices that called for a repeal, “Obamacare is the law of the land.” Of course, there are issues regarding implementation that the president, Congress and the states need to iron out. But until then the fight is on as some lawmakers make good on vows to repeal the law.
On the first day of the 113th Congress, Thursday, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R–Minn., introduced a bill to repeal the new health care law “in its entirety.” Her fellow Republican, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, still plans to fulfill his campaign vow to attempt to “repeal every syllable of every word of Obamacare.” Neither bill has any hope of becoming law; it would never get past the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Laura is a U.S. politics reporter for the International Business Times. She was always fascinated by the BBC World News each morning on the radio in Jamaica. That, and a love...