Jan. 17, 2014 -- Call it a crisis of confidence, but in recent years a pall has set in on Capitol Hill. No longer the place of grand bargains, Congress appears forever doomed to lurch from one crisis to another, the gridlock in the legislative engine threatening to explode all over both parties.
Voters have noticed.
According to Gallup, Congressional approval ratings stood at a dire 12 percent in December 2012, which seems awful until you consider they were at 9 percent in November. Whereas legislative minutiae was once the exclusive territory of staff, lobbyists and die hard C-SPAN viewers, the preponderance of websites, social media, interest groups and casual observers has raised even the most mundane act of Congress to the level of breaking news.
In some ways, the level of interest has been helpful. Elected Officials such as Marco Rubio have ridden a wave of grassroots support to overcome more entrenched interests and win the hearts and votes of an electorate that may otherwise have never heard of them. However, Sharon Angle and Christine O' Donnell stand as testament that sometimes a social media hero isn't quite ready for prime time.
The effect on actual governance has been more pronounced. Until they passed a budget late last year, Congress had been stuck in neutral, passing one continuing resolution after another, while slowly ceding more and more power to the Executive branch. When Republicans eliminated earmarking in 2006, it further weakened its power over the purse and virtually eliminated a cottage industry in D.C.
To be sure, the agreement hammered out by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray wasn't perfect –- the uproar from interest groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum helped provide background music to the host of D.C. holiday parties.
Despite that, the agreement is a small step that may allow Congress to finally begin working again. Moreover, as one Republican leadership aide pointed out, "We get that not everyone will love this. However, it allows us to focus on small victories, doing the actual business of governing –- that's important going into an election year."
Yet even in the face of modest progress, it appears long days still lie ahead on Capitol Hill. The tea party is furious at House Speaker John Boehner about the budget and even more so about his comments in the midst of selling that budget that outside groups who largely side with tea party voters have "lost all credibility." In the eyes of many ardent conservatives, the Ohio Republican owes his Speaker's gavel to these outside groups and their support -– the enmity between the two camps will be a storyline to follow. It's worth noting, however, the beginning of 2014 finds both establishment and tea party groups on the same page –- fighting seemingly unfair rules from the IRS about the participation of outside groups in the election process.
Additionally, there's a host of unfinished business lingering from 2013. The disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act tried the tolerance of an already skeptical public about further problems with the program -– difficulties the GOP will be all too happy to spotlight.
One GOP source highlighted the problem: "This administration launched a website where you couldn't even log in and then in the same breath promised Americans that their personal information is secure. It is completely implausible that the administration expects us to think that our information is safe even though the site is essentially duct-taped together. Now, Obamacare was never going to make health care affordable across the board but the management of the president's key legislative accomplishment is a self-inflicted wound that will be slow to heal."
Beyond health care, a virtual grab-bag of issues remains to be solved. From immigration and reforming the NSA, to housing policy and the emerging debate over the promise of oil and gas exports –- there's no lack of potentially groundbreaking issues.
Additionally, don't disregard tax reform as an issue that will linger just below the surface of Capitol Hill conversations this year. Even as current champions for the idea, Montana Sen. Max Baucus and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, prepare to exit the stage, a serious effort to reconfigure the tax code is the sort of issue that creates a legacy for legislators and a steady stream of new business for lobbyists –- a win/win in the symbiotic 1st Street/K Street relationship. Either way, count on Paul Ryan, as incoming Ways and Means chairman, to keep up momentum on the idea -– if only to tackle it during the next Congress.
Even as Beltway prognosticators try and guess what will be the issue du jour, more often than not, it's an issue that isn't on anyone's radar at the moment that will dominate the conversation. Last year is a perfect case: Immigration reform was quietly tabled amid the ACA failure and Edward Snowden's revelations and despite all the issues previously discussed, the concept of "income inequality" and its manifestations have already dominated the early conversation in Washington. Regardless, with the prospect of a successful 2014 election in their sights, Republicans will likely take the safe route on Capitol Hill, in hopes of returning in greater numbers next year.
Joe Brettell is a former Capitol Hill aide and currently a Republican public relations consultant. On Twitter: @joebrettell
Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.