A new Congress convenes today, and this much is certain: It doesn't have a tough act to follow.
Descriptions of the outgoing Congress include disappointing, historically unproductive, even an abject failure. Beset by both partisan divisions and ideological splits within the parties, it produced stalemates more frequently than settlements.
Congress didn't pass a budget for two years, and its squabbling over the debt ceiling in 2011 caused a reduction of the nation's credit rating.
Even the last-minute agreement on the "fiscal cliff" only postponed an inevitable reckoning with budget deficits and public debt. It included a two-month deferral of $24 billion in defense and domestic spending cuts, leaving a final decision for the 113th Congress.
Among the other business left behind was:
&#149 Hurricane aid for New York, New Jersey and other states trying to recover from the Oct. 29 storm that caused billions of dollars in damage to homes, businesses and public infrastructure. A $60 billion relief bill passed the Senate, but the House adjourned without taking action.
&#149 A new farm bill. With dairy prices on the verge of doubling on Jan. 1, Congress hastily passed a one-year extension of the law that authorizes crop insurance, price supports, farm subsidies and food stamps. The Senate passed a five-year extension in September, but again the House failed to act.
There's an opportunity here for the new Congress to revisit aspects of the Senate bill, including a new crop insurance system that's good in theory but threatens to be more costly than the subsidies it would replace. A new bill also should enact a new standard for chicken cages based on an agreement between egg farmers and the Humane Society.
&#149 A fiscal crisis threatening the solvency of the U.S. Postal Service.
Postal officials asked for greater flexibility in setting rates, an end to six-day delivery, closure of some rural post offices and relief from a costly mandate to fund retiree health care in advance, but yet again the House failed to act.
There's no guarantee that the new Congress will be any more productive. It's still divided, with Democrats retaining control in the Senate and a Republican majority, albeit a smaller one, in the House. But with 84 new members in the House and 12 in the Senate, there may be some new energy and, we hope, new willingness to compromise.
Among the new House members is Jared Huffman of San Rafael, who was elected in a new congressional district stretching along the coast from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. He will be on the Natural Resources Committee.
After reapportionment, much of Sonoma County is represented by Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena, who is starting his eighth term in Congress and will chair a task force on gun control legislation for the House Democratic caucus.
As they take their oaths, we hope it marks the beginning of a more cooperative, more productive session of Congress than the dismal spectacle of the past two years.