Congress More Futile And Unproductive Than Ever
The first session of the 112th Congress ranks as the most unproductive since official records started being kept some 64 years ago:
It’s official: Congress ended its least-productive year in modern history after passing 80 bills — fewer than during any other session since year-end records began being kept in 1947.
Furthermore, an analysis by The Washington Times of the scope of such activities as time spent in debate, number of conference reports produced and votes taken on the House and Senate floors found that Congress set a record for legislative futility by accomplishing less in 2011 than any other year in history.
The Senate’s record was weakest by a huge margin, according to the futility index, and the House had its 10th-worst session on record.
Of the bills the 112th Congress did pass, the majority were housekeeping measures, such as naming post office buildings or extending existing laws. Sometimes, it was too difficult for the two chambers to hammer out agreements. More often, the Senate failed to reach agreement within the chamber.
That left much of the machinery of the federal government on autopilot, with the exception of spending, where monumental clashes dominated the legislative session.
The Times’ analysis looked at six specific yardsticks for legislative activity: the amount of time each chamber spent officially in session; the total number of bills that passed; the number of floor votes each chamber took; the number of pages amassed in the Congressional Record, which records floor debates; the number of conference reports written; and the number of bills each chamber had signed into law by the president.
Using the Resume of Congressional Activity, printed in the Congressional Record at the end of each year since 1947, The Times ranked each session on all six of those measures, then compiled that into a “legislative futility” index.
In 2011, the Senate ranked poorly on all the measures relating to bills and was in the lower half on votes and pages in the record. The only yardstick by which it performed well was on time spent in session, where it logged more than 1,100 hours — slightly better than the median.
Combining those rankings gave the Senate a futility score of 70, or 19 points lower than the Senate’s record of 89 established in 2008.
The House record was more mixed. It spent more time in session than all but 10 other congresses, compiled the eighth highest number of pages of debate and took more floor votes than all but two other congresses. But it passed the fewest number of bills in its history and had fewer bills signed by the president than any other Congress and shared the same poor performance on conference reports.
Combining those rankings gave the House a futility score of 144, making it 10th worst.
On some level, it’s not surprising that there would be a lot of futility when Congress is divided as it will be until at least January 2013, especially given the Senate rules and procedures that give a united minority the ability to block legislation it disapproves of at a far higher rate than used to be the case in the past. That said, though, we all know from watching Washington during the past year that the things Congress has been unable to do involve what ought to be simple functions of government such as passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling. Thanks in no small part to a culture of increased partisanship and a GOP caucus in both Houses for whom compromise has become a dirty word, even those things that Congress ought to do end up taking a month of stand-offs followed by a last minute deal. That’s no way to govern.
Obviously who you blame for this depends largely on where you sit politically. As I noted last week, there’s a strong case to be made that the “no compromises” ideology of people like Senator Jim DeMint is bad for the country and bad for Congress. At the same time, though, it’s worth noting that the Senate last year largely became the place where bills passed by the House went to die, some of them never to be voted upon at all thanks to the Senate Majority Leader’s ability to have near-total control over the Senate calendar. As a result, that old standby of Washington, the House-Senate Conference Committee has become something of a relic. Moreover, it’s been nearly 1000 days since the Senate has passed its own budget, and that is a vote that is exempt from cloture motions under Senate rules, meaning that it only requires 51 votes to pass. There’s blame on both sides here, and it’s a reflection of the fact that our political culture has become more concerned with division and hyperbole than with getting the things done that need to be done.
Don’t count on the Second Session of the 112th Congress being any more productive. Historically, Congress becomes even more partisan during an election year, and the lines are already being drawn this time around. Once the Republicans settle on a nominee, which I expect will be soon, everything that happens in Congress will be about maneuvering for November and any hope of accomplishing anything will go out the window. The first battle will be about extending the Payroll Tax Cut, which expires in March. It should be a simple matter, but then it should have been a simple matter in December too. Look for another down-to-the-wire battle over this one. Beyond that, about the only thing we can expect to make it through Congress unscathed are those bills to name Post Offices.