Washington — In the midst of preparations for the second inauguration of President Obama, Washington focused its attention January 3 on welcoming the newest incarnation of its legislative branch.
Following the swearing-in of newly elected members, the 113th Congress convened in Washington for the first of many meetings it will hold during the next two years. It must adjourn not later than noon on January 3, 2015. Most Congresses tend to adjourn well before that January deadline, although the outgoing 112th Congress remained in session until very near that deadline.
The 113th Congress of the United States, the legislative branch of the U.S. federal government, has two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The chambers are filled mostly with members selected by the voters in their states or congressional districts, but a few have been appointed in accordance with state law to fill unexpired terms of members who have died, retired or been elected to other offices.
The seats in the House were apportioned based on the 2010 U.S. census and filled in the November 2012 elections. Members of the House serve two-year terms. Because senators serve for six year terms, only about one-third of U.S. senators serving in the 113th Congress were elected the previous November.
When it convened at noon on January 3, the 113th Congress had 43 African-American members, including one U.S. senator. More women — 100 — are serving in Congress than at any previous time in U.S. history. This Congress also includes 31 Latinos, 12 Asian Americans and seven openly gay or bisexual members. There are 13 new senators and 82 new members of the House (35 Republicans and 47 Democrats).
Political party control of each chamber is unchanged from the 112th Congress, even though Democrats achieved slight gains in both from the November 2012 elections. Democrats, helped by independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, who will caucus with them, still enjoy a majority in the Senate.
Republicans continue to hold a majority in the House of Representatives. Its current political breakdown is 233 Republicans, 200 Democrats, and two vacancies that are likely to be filled by one Republican and one Democrat.
FAMILIAR FACES MISSING
Some well-known legislators will be absent from Capitol Hill in 2013.
Senators Joe Lieberman (a former vice presidential candidate) and Olympia Snowe retired. Senator Richard Lugar, a powerful member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for decades, lost his primary race and could not run in the general election. Daniel K. Inouye, who was the Senate’s longest-serving member in the 112th Congress, died before the 113th Congress convened.
In the House, Representatives Ron Paul and Barney Frank retired, while Dennis J. Kucinich also lost to a primary challenger.
NEW MEMBERS EXPAND CONGRESSIONAL DIVERSITY
Tim Scott of South Carolina, an appointee who replaces retiring Senator Jim DeMint, is the first black senator from the South since 1881. He is also the first Republican African-American senator since the 1970s.
Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who defeated Republican Governor Tommy Thompson, will be the first openly gay senator.
Six of the new senators first served in the House, including Mazie Hinoro of Hawaii. She is the first Asian-American woman to serve in the Senate and also the first Buddhist.
Another member of the Hawaii delegation, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, is the first Hindu elected to Congress.
Several new members are the children of immigrants; some were born outside the United States.
SURPASS THE PREVIOUS CONGRESS?
The 113th Congress faces a number of challenges, particularly those related to the U.S. economy. It likely also will be tasked with addressing immigration reform and other potentially polarizing issues. To be successful, members will have to bridge philosophical divides among themselves and with the White House.
Americans, as indicated in a number of recent polls, are unhappy with Congress and increasingly irritated with partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill.
The good news for incoming members is that the 112th Congress was by many measures the least productive and least popular Congress of the modern era. In addition to its dismal public-approval ratings, it passed the lowest number of bills (about 220) of any Congress since the 1940s.
With a bit of hard work and a little compromise, the new Congress should be able to improve on that performance. American voters certainly hope so.