Congress Has Lowest Output Since 1947

Congress will close the year with 58 bills enacted into law, the tiniest fraction of the 6,366 bills introduced by lawmakers.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelsoi, D-Calif.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Dec. 19, 2013, 2:52 p.m.

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. Click to see full graph­ic

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.”

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