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Congress At Odds

Partisan politics dominated second session of 112th Congress

December 24, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 52

Credit: Ryan Larue/Flickr/Newscom/C&EN
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have been duking it out all year.
These are depictions of Boehner and Reid as Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.
Credit: Ryan Larue/Flickr/Newscom/C&EN
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) have been duking it out all year.

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Congress At Odds

Partisan politics in Washington, D.C., is nothing new. But the extreme gridlock that gripped Capitol Hill in the past few years has made passing even noncontroversial legislation an uphill battle and tackling controversial measures nearly impossible.

This second session of the 112th Congress was no exception. In fact, the bitter divide was exacerbated because this was an election year—with the White House, a number of Senate seats, and the entire House of Representatives up for grabs. In the end, President Barack Obama won a second term, the Senate remained under Democratic control, and the House under Republican control.

In the 10 months leading up to the November elections, the Republicans in the House spent considerable effort passing politically motivated legislation in areas such as energy and environmental policy. These measures—including the No More Solyndras Act and the Stop the War on Coal Act—had no hope of clearing the Democrat-controlled Senate or being signed into law by the President.

Democratic leadership in the Senate, on the other hand, maintained tight control on which bills were brought to the floor for a vote. This restriction made it difficult to move any legislation.

Despite the bitter divide, Republicans and Democrats did find ways to pass a few science-related laws. Measures to protect federal whistle-blowers, reauthorize user fees at FDA, and normalize U.S. trade relations with Russia all made it into law.

But such agreement on legislation was a rarity, particularly with regard to complicated science issues such as climate change, energy policy, or Toxic Substances Control Act reform.

On the federal budget for fiscal 2013, which started on Oct. 1, the House managed to pass six of a dozen appropriations bills, but the Senate failed to clear any of them. The pressure of the elections, however, pushed Congress to pass a six-month continuing budget resolution that keeps the government funded at 2012 levels through late-March 2013.

The most poignant example of Congress’ inability to compromise on critical issues is its handling of federal deficit reduction. The so-called fiscal cliff, set to occur at the beginning of 2013, is the combination of federal budget cuts—or sequestration—and tax increases. Both elements have been in place all year, and the consequences of the fiscal cliff have been widely discussed and decried. Still, Congress did little to try to avert the cliff until it returned from its election recess for a lame-duck congressional session.

Coming off the election, leaders in both parties along with the President voiced concern about inaction on the fiscal cliff and promised to work together to find common ground. The conciliatory remarks, however, fell short and failed to translate into prompt action.

Even as C&EN went to press, Republicans and Democrats remained at odds on developing a plan to replace sequestration and renew tax cuts. Congress has until year’s end to come up with some sort of compromise or the country will face the consequences of an estimated 8% cut in federal discretionary funding—including all R&D agencies—and higher taxes.

What follows is a recap of congressional activity over the past year.


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