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Congress, the White House, and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2013

Friday the 13th for the 113th CongressIt’s Friday the 13th, in 2013 for the 113th congress. Here are 13 things that went terribly wrong this year for our nation’s lawmakers (or right, depending on which side you’re on). Photo by Getty Images

As the House of Representatives wraps up its last day of legislative session on Friday the 13th, members exiting Capitol Hill will be wise to avoid every black cat and ladder they encounter. After the year they’ve had, lawmakers cannot afford any more bad luck.

2013 was a rough year for the people running the U.S. government. The 113th Congress is on track to be the least productive group of senators and representatives in recent history. President Barack Obama’s second term also had a difficult start, from confronting the “red line” in Syria’s civil war, to fixing a broken health care website. So we’ve rounded up some of the year’s “unluckiest” moments for the federal government. Read on, and let us know any we missed in the comments below: 1. Backing Away From the Cliff

At the dawn of 2013, dark clouds began to circle the House and Senate as legislators struggled to avoid going over the feared “fiscal cliff.” At 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, just hours after the 2001 Bush tax cuts expired, the House passed a compromise bill to delay widespread federal spending cuts known as sequestration. The bill passed the Senate at 11 p.m. that night, and the nation narrowly avoided what many argued would be financial chaos. But, the final compromise fell short of actually settling any long-term budget battles. Jeffrey Brown analyzed the agreement with three experts in a discussion that foreshadowed discussions to come throughout the year. Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget told the NewsHour, “It really feels like we have a political system that is not up to making difficult choices and solving hard problems and compromising.”

2. Expiration of Payroll Tax Cut

While the nation avoided falling off the fiscal cliff, some other financial legislation wasn’t immune to gravity. The deal that kept the U.S. from financial catastrophe failed to extend the 2010 payroll tax cut. This meant that the majority of Americans saw their taxes increase this year. The NewsHour’s Vanessa Dennis developed this graphic detailing how Americans’ take-home pay will decrease in 2013 depending on one’s household income.

3. Sequestration Nation

In March, Congress once again faced the automatic spending cuts it extended back in January. However, this time Congress failed to extend the deadline and the cuts, known as sequestration, took effect. Jeffrey Brown assessed the broad effects of the cuts with reporters from different parts of the country. The NewsHour also took a look at how the sequestration affected biomedical research, the arts, and Virginia’s military region.

4. The White House Stumbles on Gun Control

After the December 2012 tragedy in Newtown, Conn., 2013 started off with an ambitious gun control plan from the White House. Vice President Biden joined Hari Sreenivasan and a group of interested Americans in a Google Hangout in late January, to discuss firearms and the realities of gun control.

The White House’s efforts drew strong criticism from the National Rifle Association and some gun owners. In April, Democrat-sponsored gun control legislation that included background checks and a ban on assault weapons failed in the Senate, revealing limits to the White House’s legislative influence. Gwen Ifill looked at what happened with National Shooting Sports Foundation’s Lawrence Keane and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

5. Freedom of the (Associated) Press?

In May, the Associated Press learned that the Justice Department secretly gathered 20 reporters’ phone records while investigating leaks in the administration, igniting a backlash against the White House. At this point the White House was forced to engage in damage control, and Judy Woodruff spoke with White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri about the administration’s next move.

6. Not in My House

Congressional gridlock was a theme of 2013 and it is exemplified in bills that were unable to make their way through both chambers. The Senate passed a [comprehensive immigration bill](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/06/immigration-bill-clears-senate-has-long-road-ahead.html) and the [Employment Non-Discrimination Act](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/nation/july-dec13/enda_11-05.html) but Speaker John Boehner did not bring the bills to the floor in the House of Representatives. However, [Boehner blamed the Senate Democrats](http://www.politico.com/story/2013/12/john-boehner-senate-100584.html#ixzz2mWioBmyX) for the lack of productivity this year, arguing that the House passed more bills than the Senate, including the [Defense Authorization Act](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/military/july-dec13/military_11-20.html ). Ray Suarez [discussed the failure of the immigration bill](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/politics/july-dec13/immigration_07-10.html) with two members of the House Judiciary Committee.

7. The Farm Bill Rots on the Vine

Significant cuts in food stamps went into effect this November with the House and Senate’s failure to reach a consensus on a farm bill. A new farm bill is overdue, which addresses agriculture policies as well the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps. A stopgap has been put in place, but there’s still a danger of an economic “dairy cliff” which would send milk prices to $8 a gallon across the nation. Both chambers agree that cuts should be made to food stamps but they disagree on the amount of funds to cut from SNAP. Jeffrey Brown facilitated a discussion on the effects of the SNAP cuts between Ellen Teller of the Food Research and Action Center and Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation.

8. Crossing the “Red Line”

In August 2012, the president said the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons was a “red line” for the U.S. that, if crossed, would warrant an American response. One year later in August 2013, it became clear that the regime had used chemical weapons against its own citizens. President Obama was then faced with the challenge of upholding American credibility. But polls showed the majority of the U.S. public had little desire to get involved in Syria. The president spoke with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff as speculation mounted about his next move.

After declaring the necessity of a limited strike against Syria, the president made a surprise decision to call on Congress to approve the military action. Despite attempts to make his case to Congress and the American people, the president faced staunch opposition to military involvement in Syria, alongside criticism for passing the decision on to Congress. However, a diplomatic solution took shape at the final hour, allowing the administration to avoid the decision of what to do, should Congress reject a strike. Mr. Obama then told the NewsHour that a diplomatic solution was “overwhelmingly my preference.” The PBS NewsHour developed a cheat sheet for the Syrian conflict summing up the major issues and developments in the civil war.

9. Rock Bottom

2013 was a record-breaking year for Congress and the president, but these were not records to brag about. Approval ratings for lawmakers hit rock bottom. Only nine percent of Americans approved of Congress in November, the lowest number Gallup had recorded in its history. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings also took a hit this year. John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Institute of Politics, surveyed 18-29 year-olds and told the NewsHour that “the president’s approval rating has decreased by about 11 points across board over the last year,” even among groups that typically support him.

10. The Faux-libuster

At the end of September, with a government shutdown looming on the horizon, some Republicans saw an opportunity to take down the president’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act. Cue freshman Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Cruz took to the Senate floor in a marathon speech that was not actually a filibuster. Cruz agreed to stop at a certain time prior to taking the floor and his 17-hour speech (which also included some stand-ins by other senators) did not stop the government funding bill from coming to a vote. The NewsHour rounded up some of the faux-libuster highlights, which included a recitation of Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs & Ham.”


11. The Senate Goes Nuclear

The Senate reached its breaking point this year over the issue of confirming presidential judicial nominees. Democrats claimed that Mr. Obama faced an unprecedented number of attempts to block the confirmations of his nominees. In November, Majority Leader Harry Reid had enough. Reid invoked the so-called “nuclear option,” changing the Senate rules so that a simple majority could override a confirmation filibuster, lowering the threshold from 60 votes. Shortly after the Senate went nuclear, Gwen Ifill spoke with two Senators from each party about the rule change.

12. ERROR: Page Not Found, and Your Plan is Canceled

On Oct. 1, the website at the center of the president’s signature legislation, Healthcare.gov, went live. The site was plagued with glitches and breakdowns from the start. The administration has since waged an uphill battle trying to fix the site and recover from the public media disaster that followed the rollout. The broken website highlighted flaws of government contracting, caused administration officials to apologize for the botched rollout, and reignited a debate about federal health insurance. And shortly after the botched rollout, news broke that millions of Americans were receiving cancellation notices from their healthcare providers, due to new requirements rolled into the Affordable care act. The NewsHour has covered these issues extensively, [speaking to technical experts](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/government_programs/july-dec13/healthcare2_10-23.html ), [analyzing the political fallout](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/government_programs/july-dec13/healthcare_12-03.html), and [profiling the experiences of individuals with health care reform](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/11/your-health-care-stories.html).


A year plagued by government dysfunction culminated in a government shutdown. For 16 days in October the federal government shut its doors, employees were furloughed, national parks were closed, and all non-essential government services were halted. House Speaker John Boehner told the press that the Democrat’s demands on the government funding bill would be “unconditional surrender” for the Republicans.

Norm Ornstein and former GOP Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia joined Judy Woodruff to analyze the congressional gridlock that caused the shutdown. After Congress reached a deal on the eve of the debt ceiling deadline, Stuart Rothenberg and Susan Page joined the NewsHour to discuss the outcomes of the agreement to reopen the government.

What other debacles plagued the government in 2013? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

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