A New Year, A New Congress – Sort Of

Members of Congress who were elected to their first terms ever in November 2012 stand for a group picture on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Fresh off their fiscal cliffhanger, Congress got back to work on Thursday.

But it’s not the same old Congress.

It’s a new Congress – although it looks remarkably similar to the one it’s replacing.

The 113th Congress was sworn in on Thursday at the United States Capitol in Washington, DC.

It replaces the 112th Congress, which finally finished its overdue work late Tuesday night.

This new Congress will serve until January 2015 – the first January after the next round of congressional elections.

And there’s a good chance it’ll begin the new session with approval ratings at or near record lows, after all the drama and dysfunction of the last congressional session.

According to the Associated Press (AP), the 112th Congress was the least productive Congress in at least 60 years.

There were a number of reasons for that.

But the big one is that while the Democrats control the White House and the U.S. Senate, the Republicans are in the majority in the House of Representatives.

And for the past two years, they’ve seemed to spend most of their time trying to block President Obama and the other Democrats from doing what they think the nation needs.

The Republicans have their own ideas about what the nation needs – lower taxes and a smaller government that spends a lot less money.

But their suggestions on how to cut spending – largely by cutting programs designed to benefit the poor, the working class and the elderly – are generally the exact opposite what of the Democrats believe in.

And all that’s unlikely to change, considering that both sides were expected to have the same leaders in the new session – Nevada Democrat Harry Reid as the Senate’s Majority Leader and Ohio Republican John Boehner as Speaker of the House.

It’s also unlikely to change because more than 80% of the men and women who served in the 112th Congress were re-elected this past November.

So we’re likely to see the same old seemingly endless political battles – battles that keep the lawmakers from actually accomplishing much of anything.

“These fights, combined with difficult economic times, leave the public to understandably think very poorly of the Congress,” said congressional expert Thomas Mann, in an interview with NBC News.  “When you have a war going on between the two major parties … it’s not surprising for Congress to get (low) ratings.”

There will be some subtle changes in the new Congress.

For one thing, there will be a record number of women in the Senate – 20 out of 100.

But when you consider that women make up approximately half of the total US population, that’s still vastly under-represented.

Nearly 20% of the House will also be made up of women (81 out of 434 right now, with one open seat).

According to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times, there will also be a record number of Latinos (31) and Asian-Americans (12) in the new Congress.

And overall, there will be 94 newly elected or appointed lawmakers – 81 in the House and 13 in the Senate.

Will they make a difference?

Will anything actually change?

“We can only hope for more help,” said Senator Joe Manchin, a returning Democrat from West Virginia, in an interview with the AP.  “We hope they’re coming in eager to work hard and make some difficult decisions and put the country first and not be bogged down ideologically.”

In other words, he hopes they’ll be pretty much exactly the opposite of the 112th Congress.