If you thought Congress hit rock-bottom in terms of how many laws they enacted last session, check out the current House and Senate.
Congress will close the year with 58 public bills (the congressional term for measures with broad impact) enacted into law, assuming that President Obama signs the budget deal as promised. They may add a few to that in the last few days of the year. But it won't change substantially.
That's the lowest one-year output since at least 1947, and only the tiniest fraction of the 6,366 bills introduced by lawmakers, according to House and Senate records.
"It certainly feeds into the narrative that people find congenial—which is that Congress is not doing its job," suggests Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. "But I think that doing a kind of legislative body-count as the metric of an effective or ineffective House and Senate can be specious."
He added: "I think James Madison would have been baffled at that."
But the legislative performance in the first half of the 113th adds more fodder to the narrative building in recent years that it has become a dysfunctional, polarized, overly partisan legislative body.
Of course, House leadership has done away with "feel-good" and commemorative bills that helped inflate totals in previous years. But those reductions do not account for the increased inability to agree on and enact laws, highlighted this year by a government shutdown when lawmakers could not agree on a spending bill in time to prevent it.
Along the way, public dissatisfaction has been registered in the low approval ratings afforded to Congress. Gallup reports that job-approval ratings for Congress in 2013 averaged 14 percent, the lowest in Gallup's history.
Even the "do-nothing" Congress that Harry Truman derided in 1947 and 1948 exceeded the output of the current House and Senate. The 80th session of Congress pushed through 395 enacted laws in its first year, and 511 in its second.
The only years that come close to Congress's 2013's output were 2011, when 90 laws were enacted, and 1995, when 125 laws were enacted. Last year, 148 public bills were signed into law.
By comparison, 258 bills were enacted in 2010—the last year Democrats were in control of the House, as well as the Senate—and 410 in 2000.
Democrats in the House minority are among those most eager to bring up the low number of bills enacted into law this year. Last week, before the House adjourned for the year, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer presented charts to reporters to make the point—and to say that Republicans are at fault.
"This is only one session [year] of the Congress, but the least productive Congress, certainly, in which I have served and least productive in many respects in history," Hoyer said.
Of course, there are other views. Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, responded that "the House has passed a number of bills to help the private sector create jobs and protect American people from the impact of the president's health care law. Senate Democratic leaders have simply refused to act on them."
And there is truth to that. In fact, more than 40 repeals or partial repeals of Obamacare passed in the House have not passed the Senate. But suppose they had? Some of the very same Democrats now criticizing the lack of volume would have been tremendously distressed if those had passed the Senate—and therein lies the basis for Baker's contrarian view: The volume of enacted laws alone can be a misleading indicator of congressional success or productivity, especially in a divided Congress.
"I'm not denying the polarization—that it isn't a big impediment. And that alone is going to lessen the number of bills passed," Baker said.
"But clearly there are certain things they have to do that are important. I mean, the budget agreement was important, the appropriations bills that will have to be done now are important, and the 'doc fix' is important," he said.
And some lawmakers remain optimistic that 2014 may be different. For one thing, the recently-passed budget deal could eliminate some of the fiscal fights that have halted progress on other issues.
"I think it's pretty exciting," said Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa. "There are so many problems that need to be resolved, and challenges that need solutions."
This article appears in the December 20, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.