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First Thoughts: Unpopular and, so far, unproductive

Image: House Speaker John Boehner, center, swears in the newly elected members of the first session of the 113th Congress in January.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, swears in the newly elected members of the first session of the 113th Congress in the House Chambers January 3, 2013./ / Getty Images North America

The 113th Congress: Still unpopular and unproductive… Four reasons to explain the congressional gridlock… Back-and-forth over immigration on the Sunday shows… Obama on electricity and infrastructure in Africa… On the big stories out of Arizona and Egypt… Texas Legislature begins new special session, Wendy Davis doesn't rule out ’14 GOV bid… Pass (and political) interference on implementing Obamacare… And Gabby Giffords begins background-check tour.

Image: House Speaker John Boehner, center, swears in the newly elected members of the first session of the 113th Congress in January.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, swears in the newly elected members of the first session of the 113th Congress in the House Chambers January 3, 2013./ / Getty Images North America

***Unpopular and, so far, unproductive: With Congress on its July 4 recess, marking the completion of its work for the first half of this year, here's a little reality check: Measuring it based on polling and number of bills passed, the 113th Congress (2013-2014) is on track to be as unpopular and unproductive as the previous 112th (2011-2012). Maybe even more so. After the last Congress saw its approval ratings drop to their lowest levels, a June Gallup survey found that just 10 percent of Americans have confidence in the institution. That’s the lowest percentage Gallup ever measured for Congress on this question -- or, for that matter, any other American institution, including the presidency, big business, the medical profession and public schools. When it comes to productivity, only 15 legislative items have become law under the current Congress. That’s fewer than the 23 items that became law at this same point in the 112th Congress, which passed a historically low number of bills that were signed into law. These numbers might not be surprising given the legislative stalemates so far this year -- on the sequester, the farm bill, and student loans. Even the biggest legislative triumph so far of the 113th Congress, the Senate passing immigration reform by a 68-32 vote, appears to have hit a brick wall in the House of Representatives for now. But remember that congressional productivity is in the eye of the beholder; if you’re a conservative controlling just one chamber of Congress, you probably see it as your mission to stop things from happening. And the lack of action is seen as a success to many small-government conservatives.

***Four reasons to explain the congressional gridlock: A variety of factors help explain this gridlock. For one thing, ideological polarization remains at an all-time high (per National Journal’s vote ratings for the third year in a row, no Republican member of the Senate has a more liberal voting record than any Democrat, and no Democratic senator had a more conservative record than any Republican). Due to the gerrymandering and concentration of congressional districts, the government is divided (even though President Obama won the 2012 popular vote by four percentage points, he carried just 209 out of 435 congressional districts, while Romney carried 226). Given this divided government, congressional Republicans see it as their duty to stop much of the Democratic Party’s agenda. “Welcome to divided government,” a spokesman to House Speaker John Boehner told First Read. “A big part of our job has been to stop bad things from happening.” A final explanation is something we wrote about last week: all of the rapid change that’s taken place in the country over the past four-plus years. After all, the nation has its first African-American president who won re-election a year ago; the country is on track to be a majority-minority nation 30 years from now; Congress overhauled the country’s health-care system in 2010; and the U.S. Supreme Court just ruled that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits at a time when a majority of Americans now support gay marriage, according to national polls.

***Back-and-forth over immigration: Oh, and there’s one more big potential change that COULD take place this year: immigration reform. On the Sunday shows yesterday, supporters and opponents duked it out over reform’s fate in the House of Representatives. Supporters talked about the GOP’s political necessity to deal with immigration reform. "Republicans realize the implications of the future of the Republican Party in America if we don't get this issue behind us," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said. Added House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on “Meet the Press” yesterday: “We wouldn't even be where we are right now had it not been that 70% of Hispanics voted for President Obama, voted Democratic in the last election.” But opponents countered that the House will NOT pass the Senate’s bill. Said House Judiciary Bob Goodlatte said: “70 percent of the Republicans in the Senate voted against the immigration bill. Republicans are in the majority in the House. We want to work with Democrats. We want to work with [Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez] and others to do a bill, but not the Senate bill.”

***Obama on electricity and infrastructure in Africa: A dispatch from Africa per NBC’s Shawna Thomas and Chuck Todd: “President Obama had an eye on his legacy as he gave the keynote speech of his trip to Africa in Cape Town Sunday. But another man’s history, that of former South African President Nelson Mandela, continued to overshadow one of the actionable initiatives that Obama is attempting to leave this region with -- a plan to help sub-Saharan Africa double people’s access to electricity within the next decade. It’s easily the most tangible initiatives the president is proposing. If Bill Clinton’s legacy was helping to eliminate famine on the African continent and George W. Bush’s was combating HIV/AIDS, Obama -- based on this trip -- want his to be infrastructure, development, and empowerment. In the midst of Bobby Kennedy and Mandela reflections in Sunday’s speech, the president announced a plan called “Power Africa.” He explained it this way: We’re going to start by investing $7 billion in U.S. government resources. We’re going to partner with the private sector, who themselves have committed more than $9 billion in investment. The theory being that if access to electricity is increased, then businesses that shy away from Africa because of the lack of infrastructure will turn towards investing in the region. The president called the plan “achievable,” but it is also a measurable aspiration. At the end of his time in office, and in a decade, Africa and the world will either see that more lights are on or they are not. For a deeper dive on how to measure the plan’s success and how it will be implemented and paid for is part of the discussion that will be featured on MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” later this morning.

***On the big stories in Arizona and Egypt: While not necessarily political, there are two stories today that grabbing big headlines. The first is the tragic story out in Arizona. “Nineteen firefighters, including 18 from the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, died Sunday fighting an out-of-control wildfire in Yarnell, a tiny Yavapai County town roughly 80 miles northwest of Phoenix,” the Arizona Republic reports. “About half of the town’s 500 homes were feared destroyed by the blaze, which began early Friday evening, and by Sunday the fire had spread to 8,000 acres. All of Yarnell and the neighboring Peeples Valley were evacuated.” The other big story is in Egypt. The New York Times: “As millions of Egyptians streamed into the streets of cities across the country to demand the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, attackers stormed the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood here early on Monday after hours of clashes with armed people trapped inside.”

***Texas Legislature begins new special session, Wendy Davis won’t rule out 2014 bid: Today, the Texas Legislature begins yet another special session to complete the anti-abortion legislation that state Sen. Wendy Davis’ (D-TX) filibuster last week helped thwart. The measure is likely to pass. As NBC’s Mike O’Brien reports in a piece to be published later today, Republicans in the legislature will not repeat their mistake of leaving the abortion law until the final moments of their session, the deadline which Davis used to fell the law with her filibuster. Perhaps more significantly, O’Brien adds, the coming weeks might set the stage for a marquee showdown between Davis and Perry — who is yet to say whether he'll seek a fourth term as governor — in the 2014 governor's race. Though Davis had previously said she planned to run for re-election to her state Senate seat, she told O’Brien in a phone interview that the national outpouring she's received has forced her to reconsider a showdown against Perry, or another Republican candidate. "Of course it forces a second look, but I am not taking that look right now," she said. "Right now, I'm working to try to be very strategic, and a member of the team that has to work very hard in the next few weeks to defeat this bill." Asked directly whether she would rule out serving as Democrats' candidate for governor in 2014, Davis responded: "I cannot rule that out."

***Pass (and political) interference: Last week, GOP Sens. Mitch McConnell sent letters to the NFL and other professional sports leagues urging them not to join any efforts with the Obama administration to promote or educate the public about Obamacare, which is to be fully implemented starting next year. “Given the divisiveness and persistent unpopularity of the health care [law], it is difficult to understand why an organization like yours would risk damaging its inclusive and apolitical brand by lending its name to its promotion,” the senators wrote. "It is difficult for us to remember another occasion when a major sports league took public sides in such a highly polarized public debate." But here’s the thing: This is no longer a debate; it’s the law of the land, affirmed even by the U.S. Supreme Court. And if it’s the law of the land, it’s hard to argue that the public shouldn’t be educated about how enrollment and benefits work. It’s one thing for a political party to use the legislative process to roll back or stop laws; it’s another thing to go around the legislative process -- which ends up looking like something that borders on political sabotage.

*** Age Against The Machine: The Sunday New York Times noted how Republicans are already beginning to frame their attacks on Hillary Clinton, if she runs for president in 2016: She’s old. “A yesterday-versus-tomorrow argument against a woman who could be the last major-party presidential nominee from the onset of the baby boom generation would be a historically rich turnabout. It was Mrs. Clinton’s husband, then a 46-year-old Arkansas governor, who in 1992 put a fellow young Southerner on the Democratic ticket and implicitly cast the first President George Bush as a cold war relic, ill equipped to address the challenges of a new day.” But as the article suggests, there are two big perils for Republicans if and when they pursue such a strategy. One, saying or inferring that a woman is old is a sure way to get you into trouble (some guys know that danger all too well). Two, a political party’s ideas and values matter as much -- if not more -- than the presidential nominee’s age. In other words, can the GOP win over younger voters if it opposes same-sex marriage and policies to combat climate change? Still, this is a challenge for Hillary if she runs: How does she look like a candidate of the future?

***Gabby Giffords begins background-check tour: Finally today, Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly are kicking off their “Rights and Responsibilities Tour” in Las Vegas, NV to promote ways to reduce gun violence, including passing universal background checks. The tour will also take them to Alaska, North Dakota, Ohio, New Hampshire, Maine, and North Carolina -- states where senators (either Dem or Republican) cast key votes on the background-check measure that failed in the Senate. Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article noted that senators from these states had voted against the background-check measure, but both of Maine's senators voted for it. 

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