WASHINGTON -- The toughest challenge for Congress in 2013 turns out to be determining whether anything good happened, anything at all, especially for Republicans.
The Huffington Post asked more than two dozen senators a seemingly simple question as they fled the Capitol on their last day of work for the year: What good happened this year?
There were few easy answers.
"Oh, man. That's the toughest question I've had all year," said Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) after several heartbeats of silence and a rueful chuckle.
"What good?" said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), pausing with his own time-to-think chortle. "Well, you really threw me for a loop," he said, adding a muttered, "Oh, God."
"What good happened this year?" repeated Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), also with a laugh, as he walked along with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). "Well, I'll get back to you."
Roberts eventually came up with some lesser-known achievements, and Coats held out hope for 2014, but it's really not so surprising that lawmakers can't point to much positive that they did to brighten the lives of Americans in 2013. It was a year that featured a 16-day government shutdown, the least-productive Congress in modern history, an unabated rise in income inequality, record levels of obstruction and an epic filibuster battle that Democrats decided to solve in part by going "nuclear."
The only significant bipartisan legislation that survived the House of Representatives was a budget compromise that, described in the most optimistic terms possible, would be called modest. And it achieved savings by raising airline ticket fees, cutting military and federal worker pensions, and targeting hospitals for Medicare cuts down the line. It also failed to include an extension of unemployment benefits that expire for 1.3 million people on Dec. 28.
Earlier this month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) memorably backed the budget deal, which at least eases across-the-board sequestration cuts, by urging her members to "embrace the suck," but nevertheless it was the most common example that lawmakers offered as a positive for the year.
"We got a budget bill!" Casey declared on the way to the elevator with Rubio.
Democrats like Casey generally found the question a little easier to answer, also pointing to immigration reform, filibuster rule changes, the defense bill and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act -- although Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) dodged by asking HuffPost to call his press secretary.
Republicans tended to find positives in what didn't happen. "We're still America -- that's what's good!" Rubio hollered as the elevator doors were closing and he finished rifling his synapses for something upbeat.
"We were not attacked, uh, to the extent that we were on 9/11," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who found the level of congressional dysfunction to have hit a truly historic low. "Maybe the only other time was before the union dissolved," he said. "The good things are that it could have been worse. The final story on 2013 for me is it could have been worse."
"We were not attacked by foreign governments," said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
"What good happened?" said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). "A lot of the things [President Barack] Obama wanted to get done didn't get done."
Plenty of lawmakers -- including Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) -- could think of good things in their personal lives.
"My son did great in soccer and cross country," said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). "When you said 'good,' I immediately thought of home, not Washington, D.C."
Some senators thought a little harder than others to remind themselves of bright spots and still struggled.
"You know I think, uh, I'm having trouble trying to come up with something good," said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), eventually latching onto the growing push in Congress to reform the National Security Agency after Edward Snowden's leaks. "I think it's good that we have exposed the surveillance of Americans without a warrant, and we're going to try to do something about it. It seems like there's some consensus in that direction."
Besides pointing to the budget deal, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) metaphorically sifted through the horse manure of 2013. "I can't think of a hell of a lot of things besides that, to be honest with you. The observers say it's the least productive Congress in history, and I don't disagree with that," McCain said, thinking a bit more. "We did some good stuff on that defense bill. Did some good stuff on that."
"I'm digging for the pony here," McCain finally admitted in a reference to one of Ronald Reagan's favorite jokes.
Corker, among the Senate's most voluble and thoughtful members, was downright apologetic.
"As I leave here and look at just overall what's actually happened, it's not been a good year for the United States, so it's hard for me to think of much," he said. "I'm sorry. I'm usually very upbeat and optimistic. I'm sorry," he said as he left the Capitol for his office.
Others were just glad the dismal year that was 2013 is over.
"What good happened this year?" said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who intends to abide by his pledge to quit the Senate at the end of 2016 after serving two terms. "I only have three years left, that's what happened that's good."
"The best thing that happened this year is that we finally got word late [Thursday] night that we're going to be done," said Coats. "I think we all believe that it can't get worse than this year, so maybe next year will be better."
Below are the full reactions of senators, lightly edited for clarity:
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)
"That's a good question. We were not attacked, uh, to the extent that we were on 9/11.
"We showed a level of dysfunction that has seldom been reached. Maybe the only other time was before the union dissolved. The good things are that it could have been worse. The final story on 2013 for me is it could have been worse."
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa)
"What good happened? A lot of the things Obama wanted to get done didn't get done, like he wanted to avoid sequestration, which would have put one and two-tenths trillion [dollars] back into spending.
"That's very positive. We got 17.2 trillion in debt, and you don't want to add another one trillion and two-tenths to it."
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)
"Well, the government isn't completely closed, is it? What good happened this year? I only have three years left, that's what happened that's good."
(Why was it so bad?) "That's all about leadership. If you have good leadership, you have good progress. If you don't, you don't. And that's not a partisan statement -- that's both sides."
Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.)
"Oh, man. That's the toughest question I've had all year.
"It is surprisingly hard. This is the most frustrating year of any of my years in the Congress -- House or Senate -- because so few major issues went addressed, starting with the fiscal situation, and then bumping along through all the crises and so forth. What good happened this year? The best thing that happened this year is that we finally got word late last night [Dec. 19] that we're going to be done. I think we all believe that it can't get worse than this year, so maybe next year will be better."
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)
"That's a really, uh … you know, look, from my perspective, not a great deal. I mean our foreign policy, our credibility around the world is continuing to shatter. Look at Syria. I can't think of a lot of good, I really cannot. I have to tell you, this year in many ways for me has been one of the most productive. But as I leave here and look at just overall what's actually happened, it's not been a good year for the United States, so it's hard for me to think of much. I'm sorry. I'm usually very upbeat and optimistic. I'm sorry."
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), walking with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.)
Rubio: "What good happened this year? Well, I'll get back to you."
Casey: "We got a budget bill!"
Rubio, yelling as elevator doors close: "We're still America -- that's what's good!"
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)
"We finally got a semblance of a budget. We had the student loans -- try to get some stability to that, lower interest rates. And we were able to drive both sides further apart. I don't know if that's good, but that's what happened. That's facts.
"With [Republican Sen.] Susan Collins, we were able to put a bipartisan group together. We got the governors caucus started, which is really bipartisan, so we've got to see if we can carry that and hopefully get a little better direction to get things accomplished. It's gonna happen if you have relationships, so you have to work on that."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
"We elevated the stories of survivors of sexual assault to make it a national debate and make sure victims' voices are heard. It was one of my highest priorities.
"I have lots of personal successes, but those are all for [sons] Theo and Henry. I think that's it."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), walking with Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.)
Whitehouse: "We cleared the filibuster away from nominees …"
Wicker: "We were not attacked by foreign governments."
Whitehouse: "The economy continued to improve."
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)
"There are a lot of good things. You know, we're all blessed. This country's blessed. We're still standing. There's a lot of things where people said the sky is falling, but it hasn't fell."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
"What good happened this year? [Chuckle, pause, asks if that means with his family or the Senate.] A good report from the president's review committee on the NSA."
Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.)
"Give Lizzie, my press secretary, a call, and we can set something up."
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.)
"My son did great in soccer and cross country. When you said good, I immediately thought of home, not Washington, D.C."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
"You know I think, uh, I'm having trouble trying to come up with something good. I think it's good that we have exposed the surveillance of Americans without a warrant, and we're going to try to do something about it. It seems like there's some consensus in that direction."
[It's pointed out that his example is actually rather negative.] "I tried to turn it into a positive. You know, really, we abandoned the sequester caps, and really, I go home disappointed with the year."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
"I think that the budget thing was good. I think that will avert another shutdown. I can't think of a hell of a lot of things besides that, to be honest with you. The observers say it's the least productive Congress in history, and I don't disagree with that. We did some good stuff on that defense bill. Did some good stuff on that. I'm digging for the pony here."
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)
Murphy: "The Red Sox won the World Series."
Booker: "That's painful. That's bad!"
Murphy: "Cory Booker got elected to the United States Senate."
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.)
"What good? [Chuckle] Well, you really threw me for a loop. Oh, God. We did pass some bills -- the WRDA [Water Resources Development Act] bill. There's a whole series of bills that people worked on -- the compounding [pharmacies] bill -- they worked pretty hard on. These are bills that did not make the front page or even the first five pages, but they've made a big impact to the folks that really care about them. In fact, I even have a list of eight or nine of them, but they really haven't attracted any attention. On those bills -- they were bipartisan -- we worked hard, mostly on the HELP [Health, Education, Labor and Pensions] Committee.
"You know, everybody talks, 'Where's the farm bill? Why didn't we get all of the high-profile stuff?' -- and then turning the Senate into the House, which is a bad thing, and our response. Everybody focuses on that. But I think there's a reservoir of commitment here, on tax reform, on the tax extender package, and other things that really count. Foreign policy is a big one. I just think you have to understand that there are two very different opinions and philosophies here on the part of Republicans and Democrats, but we can occasionally build a bridge. And we'll keep doing it in spite of 2014, which happens to be an even-numbered year, and you know what happens then."
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.)
"What good happened this year? Well, I think a lot of Senate relationships were strained by what happened late in the year, but I think they're going to survive. In the Senate, those relationships and friendships matter because you only have 99 colleagues. And, uh, uh, most of the good things that happened for me were with my family and friends, and while people had their challenges generally, this was a good year for my family and for most of the people I know."
Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.)
"I had a lot of good experiences with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, in getting amendments, working together on amendments and bills, and getting them passed by the Senate. I think the Senate took on a lot of tough issues. If you look at what the Senate passed, it was a number of big issues, from budget to immigration, and gun control was up, and I think the list goes on and on."
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.)
"I think we're getting close on the farm bill. Obviously passing a budget. I think ENDA [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] was a good outcome, immigration reform. I think as we focus on all the negative, there were some pretty amazing things. I don't think anyone felt we were going to do comprehensive immigration reform. ENDA had been hanging around for a long time. And I think the budget, as I understand, is the first time since 1986 that a divided Congress has produced a budget. I tend to look at the good side of things. There was plenty bad, though."
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska)
"We passed a budget for the first time in four years. ... That's not a bad thing. We got a defense authorization. A lot of appointments done. The economy, I think the economy, we saw the report yesterday -- 4.1 percent GDP -- better than people expected. Economy's better, retail sales are up, consumer confidence is up, and deficit is down. That's good news."
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine)
"Number one, getting the first budget in four years. And I don't know if you were aware, but I just learned this is the first budget out of a divided Congress, with the House [under a] different [party], since 1986. I think that's significant. It wasn't the most picturesque process in the world, but it was done though bipartisan negotiation. That's a big deal. That's a very big deal. Getting the defense bill done, I feel positive. We had some good bipartisan work on immigration. We had some good bipartisan work on student loans. So there were some bright spots. Not a very productive year -- I'm not going to argue that.
"I think this whole business with the rules, we need to have some continued discussions. It's trying to find the right balance between respecting minority rights and not facilitating obstruction."
[He's asked whether he's still glad he ran for the Senate last year.] "Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. You're dealing with public policy at the highest level, and for a person like myself who's curious, likes public policy and likes to try to fix things, it's a great place to be. I've had some very frustrating moments. The shutdown, the vote on [gun] background checks was a downer, but by and large, I feel pretty good."
Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.)
"I think a number of things. We're right on the verge of getting the farm bill done, we're piecing that together. We got the WRDA [Water Resources Development Act] bill done. So really a lot of things have gotten done when you take away the budget issues. That's really where we, you know, where we have a problem agreeing -- in the amount of money we're going to spend in the future and increase taxes, increase revenue to get those dollars. That's really where the concern is at.
"I'd like to have seen a lot more things voted on. I don't have any problems at all casting votes. I think the amendment process needs to be fixed, [so] members can offer amendments. That's how you avoid what happened with the military pay issue that we've got, how things like that are allowed to go forward. That doesn't happen if everybody's consulted."
Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.