The Year in Government: Lots of spying, little legislating

Gridlock, bickering, few policy accomplishments mark 2013 in the nation’s capital

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, September 2013.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The takeaway from 2013: Your government has gotten eerily good at watching you. Serving you, on the other hand, seems to be an impossibly tall order for lawmakers whose ability to govern has atrophied.

The powers in the nation’s capital can’t be blamed for everything, but close observers of the U.S. political system agree we’re at a low point and are likely to remain there for the foreseeable future, given the polarization, the historic unproductivity, the bickering (no canings, though, as an Al Jazeera reader pointed out recently), the bottom-scraping approval ratings.

Perhaps the biggest cause for alarm is elected officials’ inability to tackle urgent challenges: an unemployment rate that stands at 7 percent, an anemic recovery that has been particularly slow to extend to minorities and other vulnerable populations, the steady decline of workers’ wagesgrowing income inequality, a broken immigration system, low trust in public institutions, not to mention the unmet challenges of man-made climate change.

The year opened as the country reeled from a horror show: Adam Lanza, a teenager with a history of mental illness, walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., in late December 2012 and opened fire, killing 20 schoolchildren and six teachers. Although the faces of the 26 slain and their grieving families lit up television screens for months, lawmakers ultimately decided not to act. Modest legislation to expand background checks failed in the Senate, as the gun-rights lobby outspent gun-control groups $12.2 million to $1.6 million in the first half of 2013, according to the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation.  A running tally by Slate estimates that more than 33,000 people have been killed by guns since the massacre.

Austerity became the de facto economic policy in the spring, as approximately $85.3 billion in across-the-board spending cuts took effect. Sequestration — a policy designed to force lawmakers to come up with a long-term deficit-reduction deal (they didn’t) and one no politician professed to actually like (that didn’t matter) — kicked 57,000 kids off the early-childhood education program Head Start, slashed public-housing support by $1.74 billion, trimmed border security by $595 million and even hit venerated institutions such as the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the Library of Congress, among deep cutbacks in almost every facet of government. Some of that money will be restored in 2014 and 2015 by an end-of-the-year budget compromise, but a large chunk of the cuts will remain in place for the next decade. 

Nonetheless, Americans have had little time to process the impact on their pocketbooks. Even as President Barack Obama repeatedly tried to focus his second-term agenda on the economy, the summer was dominated by explosive revelations about the United States’ spying program. Former federal contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents that showed the National Security Agency had wide authority to monitor the phone calls and keystrokes of millions of Americans who are groundlessly under suspicion. Facing mounting pressure at home and abroad, officials fell back on well-worn incantations: Would you like another 9/11? Legislation that would have curbed NSA surveillance fell in the House by a slim margin. Nonetheless, in 2013’s waning days, there was a glimmer of hope for privacy advocates as the president’s advisers recently released a strongly worded report suggesting limits on the NSA’s powers.

The fall of 2013 brought perhaps the greatest display of dysfunction all year. The GOP’s insistence that Obama and Democrats agree to repeal the Affordable Care Act led to a 16-day partial government shutdown, which furloughed thousands of federal workers for two weeks and cost the United States $24 billion in economic output. A catastrophic near breach of the debt ceiling that would have plunged the country back into recession loomed before Republicans capitulated and passed a spending bill and debt-limit hike.

The new health care program had a bumpy rollout, plagued by crippling technological problems and confusion about a key provision, which did little to restore Americans’ faith in what government could accomplish. The prognosis looks less apocalyptic as some of the major website problems have been ironed out, but whether the reform is viable in the long term and whether it can achieve its goal of providing health care to those who need it most remain to be seen. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that some states’ decision not to expand Medicaid expansion would exacerbate racial and ethnic health care disparities.

Although Congress managed to eke out a bipartisan compromise that will prevent any more budget impasses for the next few years and rolls back some of those painful sequester cuts, major initiatives have landed in the trash heap in 2013, most prominently immigration reform, which seemed like a foregone conclusion when the GOP confronted its long-term electoral vulnerabilities with Hispanics in the wake of Obama’s reelection.

There are various theories about what is ailing the republic — the rightward drift of the Republican Party, an increasingly divided electorategerrymandered House districts, the influx of an unprecedented amount of money into the political system. The list goes on while the problems fester.

In 2014, lawmakers will be working even fewer days as they go back to their home states and districts to campaign for re-election and, as always, ask for more money. Obama is poised to make a push for a federal minimum-wage hike and other initiatives aimed at re-energizing upward mobility in the new year, and Republicans will likely up the ante on their “Obamacare” attacks and perhaps turn their attention back to entitlement and tax reform.

But will anything consequential get done? Will the partisan fever break? It’s been a bad few years for optimists in the District and, until proven otherwise, pessimism rules the day.

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