Philly delegation reflects on the do ‘next to nothing’ Congress

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 Members of The 113th Congress (from left) Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia; Rep. Jim Gerlach R-Chester County; and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick R-Bucks County

Members of The 113th Congress (from left) Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia; Rep. Jim Gerlach R-Chester County; and Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick R-Bucks County

The 113th Congress was so unmemorable, it will likely be confined to a footnote in history books: it’s the second least productive Congress ever. Lawmakers may be remembered for shutting down the government which cost the economy some $24 billion. That was a 2013 battle but things didn’t improve much in 2014, according to Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Chester County).

“Well, it’s been a — you know, a very contentious year with a lot of issues from Obamacare to immigration, and not seeing, again, the House and the Senate and the White House come together and get a full budget and set of appropriations bills completed,” Gerlach said.

Tea party conservatives haven’t been able to make the deep spending cuts they want, while progressives have also been sidelined. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Philadelphia) says it’s been frustrating.

“I’m saddened that the Congress as a — as a whole — really hasn’t done a lot,” Fattah said. “So you know, but it’s always a hope that the institution, you know, will recover, and we’ll have a great 114th. I’ve been here for ten terms now and I’ve seen probably the best and the worst.”

Personally, Fattah says 2014 has been the best year yet in Washington for his priorities around neuroscience. “I would think that this is probably my most effective year in the Congress in terms of the work that I’ve done,” he said. He was able to increase funding for brain research by $21 million while also getting lawmakers to agree to take steps to establish a National Brain Observatory.

But ethics troubles continue to swirl around Fattah. His son was indicted this year over allegations of bank fraud and tax evasion. The congressman’s former chief of staff and a political consultant have pleaded guilty to corruption charges and a politician fitting his description is mentioned several times in court filings. Still, Fattah says he’s not disheartened.

“No, because this has been going on, at least publicly reported in Philadelphia since 2008,” said Fattah. “So this is my – I’ll be sworn into my fourth term with this kind of swirling. And you know, the fact of the matter is, when you have the power I have and the position I have, scrutiny kind of comes along with it, all right.”

In the upper chamber, the region’s senators also report frustration.

“I don’t think someone in either party, in either house can be – can feel that they’re satisfied with the pace of things. We have got to push it further,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania).

Casey did see years of work pay off. He teamed up with a Republican senator from Georgia and the two over came resistance in both parties and were able to pass a bill providing $300 million to children hospitals.

“So we had a good — we had a good product in a sense or a good result that had been achieved, but you needed, you needed to, it really did start back in the states. States that had children’s hospitals had to really keep the pressure on. So I don’t think there’s any magical formula. It’s just, it’s persistence and trying to keep a bipartisan coalition together,” Casey said.

There were some other bright spots in the Senate. New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was able to pass bipartisan sanctions on Russia and Venezuela.

“We work very hard on the committee to bring common ground together on these foreign policy issues because we think that the nation is strongest, particularly in foreign policy, when we can speak with one voice,” Menendez said.

But President Obama angered Menendez — the son of Cuban immigrants — when he unilaterally decided to take steps to normalize relations with Cuba.  Menendez calls the policy change “misguided.” The president also angered the GOP by signing an executive order to keep some five million undocumented workers in the country. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks County) says while contemporary Washington is giving lawmakers in both parties’ headaches, there’s no reason to despair.

“It’s easy to be frustrating. I’m realist that you don’t accomplish a lot by simply being frustrated and then going home,” said Fitzpatrick.

And now, as Republicans prepare to take over the Senate in January, the pressure is mounting on the GOP to provide solutions and not just play defense against the president’s agenda. Fitzpatrick is hoping Congress can make progress in the New Year.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done even in those areas where there’s agreement between Democrats and Republicans, and the American people deserve it,” said Fitzpatrick.

The 2016 election campaign is expected to get underway at the end of 2015, so lawmakers have a few months to get some serious legislating done before Washington once again gets consumed by the gridlock that comes with a presidential election.

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