By PETER URBAN
Stephens Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack came to Washington a year ago as a member of one of the largest freshman classes ever elected.
The newcomers arrived believing they had a mandate for change - change that included cutting government spending, reducing federal regulations on business, and reforming the way Congress conducts itself.
Their aim was to put Americans back to work, reduce the federal debt and restore the nation’s faith in its political leaders. But 2011 ended with the national unemployment rate at 8.6 percent, a $15 trillion federal debt, and congressional approval ratings at an all time low.
Only 11 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, according to a December Gallup poll. It was the lowest single rating in 37 years of Gallup asking the question. The annual approval rating for Congress was 17 percent, which is also a record low.
Although he is part of Congress, Womack, a former Republican mayor of Rogers, said he shares voter anger.
"Any time the general public witnesses a Congress that has a lot of difficulty in making difficult choices, for whatever reason, there is a serious feeling of frustration - and that leads to a scenario like approval ratings that are at the level they are," he said.
Congress completed work on annual appropriations in late December - three months into the 2012 fiscal year. Along the way, partisan wrangling put the federal government on the verge of shutdown multiple times. And a "super committee" charged with closing the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next decade failed to produce any results.
"It is hard to be proud of anything when you are sitting here with $15 trillion in debt and a budget that is way out of balance," Womack said during a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Womack began 2011 hoping that it would approve the dozen annual appropriations bills before July - restoring "legislative order" to a committee process that under recent Democratic control had failed to deliver on time.
The Republican-controlled committee had approved five of the appropriations bills before July. It completed three others in July and did not deliver on three others. The committee did approve an Energy and Water bill that came out of the subcommittee where Womack is vice chairman.
Most of the annual appropriations were rolled into two "omnibus" bills passed in November and December. Lawmakers reduced discretionary spending by $7 billion from the 2011 fiscal year spending level.
Womack was able to secure language within the appropriations bills to block a new rule from taking effect that would have altered the way cattle, hog and chicken producers are compensated by meat processors including Springdale-based Tyson Foods.
"I think if you were to talk to Tyson executives they would agree that slot on Appropriations has already had a very nice return to our district," he said.
Womack is angry and frustrated by the partisan gridlock. He blames Senate Democrats for stifling economic growth by blocking further action on bills House Republicans approved to reduce government regulation and cut federal spending.
"Two chambers have not produced a lot, but I have to defend the House of Representatives. We’ve done a lot. We’ve got a lot of things accomplished," Womack said.
House Republicans approved more than two dozen "jobs bills" that have languished in the Senate, Womack said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has kept the bills off the Senate floor claiming that they would not pass. Many of the bills focused on prohibiting federal agencies from imposing more stringent regulations on industry. The White House had also threatened to veto many of the bills.
"Our whole system has created a circumstance where the President of the United States is able to frame his re-election pretty much against a do-nothing Congress. I fault the majority leader and the Democratically-controlled Senate for helping to create a scenario where little gets accomplished. That frustrates me," Womack said.
In defense of House Republicans, Womack said they have tried to put the nation on a different path.
"This new majority in the House has done a very effective job of stopping a lot of the nonsense … in terms of legislative agendas that are purposed in growing government and the bureaucracy that try to seize control of our every decision," Womack said.
In Arkansas, Womack said his constituents tell him they want Congress to get something done. Womack said he is willing to work with Democrats to do just that.
"There is going to have to be room for compromise in Washington if we are going to have substantial improvement to our current condition," he said.
Womack found Democrats to be lead cosponsors on three of the bills he introduced in Congress in 2011.
Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, recruited House Democrats to sign on to legislation to produce a commemorative coin to benefit the U.S. Marshals Museum in Fort Smith. The House approved the bill after surpassing the necessary 290 co-sponsors, and it now awaits Senate action.
"I asked (Ross) to be involved. He took it and ran with it. I couldn’t have done it without him," Womack said.
Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., signed on to a "marketplace equity" bill that Womack said would help small banks attract investors.
And, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., is the lead co-sponsor of a bill that would allow states to collect taxes owed on sales conducted over the Internet.
"The signature thing for me probably is going to be the e-fairness legislation because it is so incredibly important to communities, states and local businesses," Womack said. "I’m proud to carry the legislation because I believe in my heart that it is the right thing for America. I do worry about our small businesses."
Womack didn’t always stay above the partisan fray. In fact, he played a leading role in one of the early party battles that put the federal government on the brink of a shutdown.
On April 1, a divided House approved legislation, 221-202, that Womack introduced which he claimed was designed to avoid such a shutdown during the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year.
Majority Leader Eric Cantor said at the time that the bill would trigger enactment of a year-long House Republican budget plan - opposed by Democrats - if the Senate failed to approve Womack’s bill by April 6, when the next shutdown loomed.
House Democrats complained that the bill was unconstitutional as well as nonsensical. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., went to the floor toting a drawing of the "Bill" character from the Saturday morning cartoon "Schoolhouse Rock."
Some Republicans also questioned the constitutionality of Womack’s proposal.
Still, Womack counted the bill as one of his legislative successes.
In the coming year, Womack hopes Congress can make more progress on the deficit and addressing the "enormous challenges" that face the nation but seems doubtful that will occur before the 2012 elections.
"We haven’t been able to accomplish near what we would have liked," Womack said. "But remember how much of the decision making process we control. We are one third. It takes the House, Senate and President."