Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
May 5, 2014
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The 113th Congress: Loud and lazy?

On track to make history as least productive ever

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Even before the government shutdown last fall, the 113th Congress was scorned for the volume of its partisan rancor and paucity of legislative accomplishment. President Barack Obama recently called it “the least productive Congress in modern history.”

So politics aside, does this Congress really deserve the bad rap it’s getting?

The short answer is yes. So is the long answer.

Let’s assess the 113th from three angles: basic legislative productivity, laws related to the issues most important to voters and, finally, public trust and confidence. This is not going to be pretty.

First, we’ll look at the laws passed – bills introduced, passed and signed into law by the president during one two-year term. (We won’t count resolutions, which are usually ceremonial.) It turns out that the number of laws that have passed in the past 20 years has declined steadily. The amount of legislation passed each two-year term plunged from a high of 566 in 1973 to only 271 in the last Congress, as the chart below shows.

And the current term is poised to continue the trend.

So far in the 113th Congress, 94 bills have been introduced and become law, 72 of those in the first session. If we assume (optimistically) the number of bills passed in the second session will at least be the same as those passed in the first, this Congress will pump out a measly 144 – the lowest number in history.

So technically, President Obama was right, this is shaping up to be the most unproductive modern Congress. But only counting bills is perhaps too simplistic. According to Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the real measure of productivity is “what has Congress done relative to the agenda that needs to be addressed?”

So far this term Congress renamed a bridge in St. Louis, Mo., and a traffic control center in Nashua, N.H. Another law that passed in 2013 was titled, “To specify the size of the precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins.” That’s not exactly the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In terms of landmark legislation that will be remembered for years, well, there isn’t any. Be honest: Can you think of a single law passed by this Congress? Thought so.

You could potentially point to the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The bill provides money towards investigating and prosecuting violent crimes against women. And some important student loan legislation also made it through.

But what’s more likely to stick out in your mind isn’t much to be proud of. This term the legislature managed to shut down the government and the House voted futilely 54 times to change the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

“It’s pretty depressing,” said Mann.

OK, so how did Congress do on the issues voters most care about?

January Gallup Poll ranked what American’s viewed as the country’s biggest problems.

Get this: The number one problem was dissatisfaction with government and Congress. That is highly unusual in the history of the Gallup poll, especially coming on the heels of the great recession.

The other five big concerns were the economy, unemployment and healthcare followed by education and immigration respectively.

Congress has debated and wrestled with laws on all these fronts, but nothing major has been enacted. And with the House and Senate only planning to be in session about 50 and 85 days respectively out of the remaining 125 or so before the November elections, the chances of them doing so are miniscule.

Finally, we’ve kind of telegraphed the last punch already – public opinion of this Congress.

Bluntly, Congress is also at the bottom of the totem pole. As the graphfrom Gallup below shows, the public’s confidence in the legislative branch started plummeting in the early 2000s. It has fallen further and faster than the judicial and executive branches.

It gets worse. Look at the next chart, also from Gallup polling.

A measly 5 percent of Americans have a great deal of trust in Congress. That’s less than “big business,” banks and HMOs.

It can’t get much worse than that.

Actually, it can. Another 2013 study by Public Policy Polling found that Americans rank the institution below cockroaches and traffic jams, with just a 9 percent favorability.

So Congress is down there with creepy crawlers and health insurers. Ouch.

Yet despite the overwhelming distaste, most voters continue to re-elect their own members of Congress and vote for the incumbents.

In 2012, congressional approval ratings averaged around just 15 percent and yet 91 percent of the Senate and 90 percent of the House members who ran were re-elected.

So don’t expect there to be a French Revolution at the midterm elections. Unless sentiments and voting behavior changes wildly, the majority of the most unproductive Congress in recent history will be back in their seats in January 2015.

No guillotines needed.