Congress dome file

The Capitol Dome of the Capitol Building at sunrise, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) ORG XMIT: WX101

WASHINGTON — Drug prices. Surprise Medical bills. Trade deals.

All have been identified as priorities for Congress this year on both sides of the aisle, but all have been caught up in the partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington amid a newly-divided government and an ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

You can ask Republicans and Democrats throughout Congress whether they feel like much is being accomplished in the year since government split when Democrats took control of the U.S. House, and most will reply with a resounding "NO."

Despite the House passing its own legislation, the Senate has focused primarily on judicial nominations and securing the president's priorities.

According to this newspaper's analysis, confirmed by independent tracking from the nonpartisan Govtrack.us, the productivity of Congress has hit a wall.

Just 70 laws have been enacted since January of this year. For comparison, the two-year period that ended in January saw 443 bills become law — more than six times as many. And experts say opportunity is shrinking for much to be accomplished in 2020, when there is a presidential election.

“(Democrats) surely don't get what the people want Congress to be doing. But I think they're starting to recognize," U.S. House GOP Whip Steve Scalise, a Jefferson Parish Republican and the highest ranking member of the Louisiana delegation, said in a recent TV appearance. "They're starting to think about pulling the ripcord, because people are saying, 'OK, why aren't you focusing on lowering prescription drug prices, or creating more jobs with the USMCA trade deal?'"

It's a common complaint from Republicans, as House Democrats pursue impeachment inquiry centered on Trump's alleged leveraging of foreign aid to Ukraine for political purposes.

“I think people are fed up," Scalise said of the focus on impeachment.

Louisiana's Republicans in Congress have stood by Trump through the process and defended the president. The lone Democrat, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans, for years has advocated impeaching the president.

Seventeen bills have failed in Congress in the past 11 months, compared to 14 for the two-year past session.

The analysis shows there are a lot of proposals, but few results. More than 439 measures have gotten a vote this year, compared to 857 in the previous two-year period, indicating that it's on track or ahead of schedule, but the enacted laws lag significantly off trend and six measures have been vetoed compared to none in the previous Congressional period.

Among the items stuck in the gears, as partisan politics grips the nation: A trade pact that is critical to Louisiana's agriculture, energy and petrochemicals industries. Mexico is the top country to receive goods exported from Louisiana each year. Last year, the state exported $9.22 billion in products to Mexico and and $3.57 billion in products to Canada.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, announced this week that negotiations are progressing on the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, commonly called USMCA.

“We are within range of a substantially improved agreement for America’s workers. Now, we need to see our progress in writing from the Trade Representative for final review," Pelosi said Monday.

But the review of work so far shows little agreement between House Democrats and the GOP-controlled upper chamber that's aligned with the president.

Congress has not yet passed a long-term budget deal and is barreling toward a Dec. 20 federal government shutdown, after two short-term spending measures were passed since the start of the fiscal year in September. 

Scalise said funding for the border wall, one of Trump's priorities, has been the major sticking point for a long-term agreement.

Additionally, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, has been pushing for legislation that would address surprise medical bills and the high costs of prescription drugs. The surprise medical billing, which happens when patients are billed for unexpected out-of-insurance costs, has been stalled for months.

"We need to end up in a place that gives patients security while having a level playing field for providers, hospitals and insurers," Cassidy said of his bill, which has gained bipartisan support.

Without agreements with House Democrats, the Senate has focused on pushing through Trump's judicial nominees. The House has continued to push its more liberal agenda to the upper chamber, where most of those measures have stalled or died.

Bills that have reached consensus include multiple stopgap spending measures, renaming postal offices, commemorative coins and multiple extensions of existing law.

Meanwhile, legislation has been slow-moving or stalled on several Louisiana-priority bills, including an effort to beef up the cut of offshore oil and gas revenues that Gulf Coast states get, efforts to lower health care costs and a revamp of the National Flood Insurance Program.

Congress has two weeks of work left in the year, and is facing a federal shutdown on Dec. 20 if no long-term spending or stop-gap measure is passed before then. 

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.