Seven Things the Do-Nothing Congress Did

It’s was the least productive session ever, but legislators did manage to get some work done. From student loans to Kentucky fishing spots, a look at notable laws enacted this year.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, via Getty

2013 is widely considered to be the least productive year in the history of the United States Congress. The legislative body struggled to do the most basic work expected of it, such as keeping the government open. Despite all the partisan strife, 65 bills were sent to President Obama to be signed into law. These are seven of the more notable laws enacted during this not-very-momentous first session of the 113th Congress, where that body did more than just keep the lights on.

Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization

The Violence Against Women Act was first enacted in 1994 and was since reauthorized twice. However, the act lapsed in 2011 and Congress had a difficult time renewing it. Democrats wanted to add provisions protecting gays and lesbians as well as strengthening protections for Native Americans. In contrast, some Republicans thought the bill was a dangerous expansion of government and were against the entire concept. The bill, S.47, which passed the Senate in 2012, was swiftly approved by the upper chamber in 2013 by a vote of 78-22. Soon after, House Republicans who had been opposed to the Senate version buckled. After all, it’s hard to be opposed to the Violence Against Women Act in general, let alone in the aftermath of the “war on women” of the 2012 election. Needless to say, whatever qualms Republicans had about the bill— particularly about the authority of tribal courts over non-Indians who commit crimes against Native women in their jurisdiction—were outweighed by the political cost. The Senate bill eventually passed the House without amendment, 286-138. All of the 138 votes against came from Republicans.

Student Loans

There was a political standoff about student-loan rates over the summer. For a few weeks, interest rates doubled after the Senate refused to act on a House bill, H.R. 1911, which would peg student-loan interest rates to market levels. The problem was many Democrats in the Senate were willing to let rates double, rather than risk far higher increases possible with rates determined by the market. Eventually Senate Democrats blinked and accepted a compromise over some liberal opposition in an 81-18 vote in hopes of broader student-loan reform in the Higher Education Reauthorization Bill. That bill has yet to pass Congress.

Freedom to Fish Act

At least one piece of legislation passed by Congress has been featured in a campaign ad this year. S.982, the Freedom to Fish Act, was the centerpiece of Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander’s first television ad in his successful effort to ward off a Tea Party challenge for his Senate seat in 2014. This legislation overturns Army Corps of Engineers regulations that prohibit fishermen in boats from pursuing their catch around 10 different dams on the Cumberland River in Tennessee and Kentucky. These areas are considered to be some of the river’s best fishing spots and local outdoorsmen were outraged by the prohibition. The bill sailed through Congress without a vote, although President Obama did wait as long as constitutionally possible to sign the bill.

The Gun-Control Legislation That Passed Unanimously

After the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn. last year, gun-control advocates made a major national push to pass new legislation like mandatory background checks and an assault-weapons ban. It fizzled out. Congress accomplished nothing and, in Colorado, one of the few states that did enact new gun laws, two supportive state senators were recalled in September. However, one gun-control bill passed through Congress without even a recorded vote—H.R. 3626, which extended by 10 years the ban on guns made of plastics or other material that would allow them to go undetected by a metal detector or X-ray machine. Needless to say, the NRA did not take a stand on this issue, which allowed the bill to pass quietly with only minimal protests from the fiercest advocates of gun rights.

Stan the Man the Bridge

Stan Musial was one of baseball’s greatest players. Over two decades with the St. Louis Cardinals, he won three MVP awards and seven NL batting crowns. Musial was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. A few months after his death at the beginning of 2013, a bill was introduced to pay tribute to Musial by naming a new bridge after him and, of course, veterans. H.R. 2383 was introduced by Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) to name the span—built where Interstate 70 crosses the Mississippi River, linking St. Louis to southwest Illinois—the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge. The two names were included because Illinois wanted the bridge to honor veterans and Missouri wished to use the span to pay tribute to Musial. The bill passed the House by a vote of 395-2 with two libertarian-leaning Republicans, Justin Amash of Michigan and Tom Massie of Kentucky opposed. It faced no opposition in the Senate. For those wishing to drive on the bridge, it is scheduled to open on Feb. 9, 2014.

Lying About Being a Hero

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In 2005, Congress passed the Stolen Valor Act, a law making it illegal to lie about receiving a military medal or decoration. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that law was unconstitutional; after all, the First Amendment protects all speech, not just when people are telling the truth. So Congress took another crack at the law, passing H.R. 258, which modified the law the court found unconstitutional so that lying about receiving a medal was only a crime when done “with the intent to obtain money, property, or other tangible benefit.” The bill passed the House by a margin of 410-3 with only three dissenters, Reps. Amash and Massie and Paul Broun (R-GA). In the Senate, it passed unanimously without a vote.

Closing Down the Federal Courthouse in Meridian, Mississippi

There were once five divisions of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, one of two federal district courts in the Magnolia State. Now there were only four. As a result of H.R. 2871, a bill passed unanimously in the House and without even a recorded vote in the Senate, the federal courthouse in Meridian, Miss., will shut its doors forever. Although the courthouse had heard historic cases during the civil-rights movement, it was decided that it was unnecessary and federal judges urged Congress to consolidate the Southern District of Mississippi’s operations. They agreed. Not only will this save the federal government money, but it presents a host of potential opportunities for real-estate developers interested in downtown Meridian.