The House is holding lots of headline-grabbing oversight hearings – 100 in May alone. But when it comes to the actual crafting and advancing of legislation, the lower chamber is on pace for one of the least productive sessions in recent decades.
The 21 permanent committees in the Republican-led House have issued just 94 original reports or markups in the first five months of the year, the second-lowest showing in any opening of a Congress since at least 1997, records show. Production at the start of a new session was only ever lower once – in 2001, when just 80 House committee reports were issued through May.
In the Democratic-controlled Senate—which is also responsible for confirming presidential nominees—the pace has been more in line with historical norms since the mid-1990s, with 20 committees issuing 32 markups through May, almost double the 18 issued through the same period in 2011.
“No one can look at the floor schedule and argue that this has been a productive Congress that is seeking to address the urgent needs of middle-class Americans,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
A senior House Republican aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, was just as blunt. “Nothing of substance is really getting done,” he said. “What legislation that Republicans pass is not going to get shot down or changed dramatically in the Senate? And the Senate is thinking, what can we possibly do that makes it through the House?”
Accompanying the low House committee output is another dubious distinction: the small number of “public bills,” a congressional term for measures that have broad impact, that have been passed by both the House and Senate and signed into law during the first five months of this session.
Through May, there have been just 11 public bills that have become law (two others have not yet been signed), the lowest number for the first five months of a session since at least 1995, according to numbers available from the Library of Congress and the U.S. Government Printing Office.
Of course, there is no way to know if House and Senate committees will accelerate their production in the upcoming months, or perhaps pass major pieces of legislation, such as the sweeping immigration-reform bill now under consideration in the Senate.
But lawmakers and staffers from both parties agree the committee process is bogged down, frozen, or drifting. They do not, however, agree on why.
Some staffers—including even House Republican aides—are quick to point out that Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, made clear early this session his “you first” position vis-à-vis the Senate. Essentially, Boehner has challenged President Obama and the Senate to take the first step when it comes to major legislation such as immigration reform or gun control.
Whether this was motivated by Boehner’s frustration over seeing previous initiatives killed in the Senate, or a fear of doing anything to provoke rebellion among conservatives, is a subject of debate.
Perhaps this mutual distrust is best reflected in the work of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has moved just two committee reports through May, and the Senate Finance Committee, which has moved only one (and that was simply a technical measure outlining the committee’s activities during the last session).
Committee aides to both Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., say both panels have been busy—just in other ways. For instance, they argue that both panels have been engaged in a process to reform and simplify America’s tax code, through bipartisan meetings, working groups, and developing option papers.
But others say the numbers have more to do with posturing. Because revenue bills must originate in the House, by passing fewer bills House Republicans can starve Senate Democrats of opportunities. “They have decided not to do any revenue bills because they fear the Senate will use them to do some sequester replacement,” said one top Democratic aide.
Others see the low number of committee reports and markups as a deliberate Republican emphasis on messaging over legislating. “PR over production,” is how one Democratic aide casts it. To illustrate this, House Democratic staffers note that 48 of the 95 committee reports or markups that have advanced have come from just two House committees. The Natural Resources Committee has advanced 28 reports, and the Rules Committee has pushed forward 20 other markups.
But of the reports issued from the Rules Committee, which sets procedures for floor votes, seven are listed in congressional records as being “original bills” from the panel itself, without a previous markup or hearings this session by other committees. That means those items were bills channeled through Rules and directly to the floor by leadership, such as another stab at repealing the Affordable Care Act. And in all, eight of the 20 committee reports from Rules were advanced despite veto threats from the Obama administration, with little likelihood of passage in the Senate.
“Nothing is their agenda. Never is their timetable,” Pelosi complained last month when lamenting what she described as a refusal by House Republicans to take up a more bipartisan agenda.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., in a memo last week to fellow House Republicans, noted that the chamber is proceeding with the first of the annual spending bills advanced by the Appropriations Committee for the upcoming fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
But even that reflects little more than one-chamber action, because the House and Senate remain nearly $92 billion apart on the total amount of money their respective budget committees have designated to be spent on agency operating budgets.
Senate appropriators expect to begin marking up their own bills this month. But there is still no agreement for the House and Senate to go to a conference committee to resolve their budget differences, and another stopgap measure, or continuing resolution, may eventually be needed this fall to avoid a government shutdown if the stalemate continues.
A spokesman for Boehner referred questions about the legislative agenda to Cantor’s office.
“When one is focused on trying to tackle big problems, one tends to produce less small items,” responded Doug Heye, a Cantor spokesman, in an e-mail. Heye pointed to the Ways and Means efforts at tax reform, and the House Financial Services Committee’s look into the housing market and potential reforms involving government-sponsored enterprises, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Yet Cantor himself indicated in his memo last week that House Republicans will continue through June and July to put a premium on their oversight activities that involve the administration.
He wrote that lawmakers should also expect a number of important issues to reach the house floor, including appropriations bills, action to reform No Child Left Behind, and “addressing overbearing regulations.” He also wrote that “we will also continue our focus on how to deal with our broken immigration system as well as the debt limit.”
But Cantor emphasized that “as the last few weeks have demonstrated, congressional oversight is not only a constitutional duty, but also a vitally important check and balance to the Obama administration. Over 100 oversight hearings were held in May and I am proud of the work each of our committees put into these hearings.”
This article appears in the June 7, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as House Committees Taking Slow Stroll Toward Lawmaking.