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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.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. PogueMahone says:

    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.

    You’re right. It should be simple. We should end the Payroll Tax Cuts when we end the Bush Tax Cuts.
    After all, why should we cut taxes for one class, and not the other?

    Cheers.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    With a society that is polarized and tribal and a 60 vote requirement for anything to pass the Senate I don’t see any improvement. A strong executive branch that stretches it’s constitutional powers is probably necessary or the country won’t be governed at all. Of course the fact that the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party voted in 2010 and nearly everyone else stayed home made it a much larger problem.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  3. de stijl says:

    I love, love, love the fact The Washington freaking Times says “More often, the Senate failed to reach agreement within the chamber” without mentioning at all why that could ever be the cause of the failure to reach agreement.

    It’s kinda like reading Soviet-era TASS releases. You have to read between the lines to get the true story.

    I guess when you’re the propaganda arm of the Party these delicate matters require a certain finesse with the language

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  4. Steve Verdon says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    A strong executive branch that stretches it’s constitutional powers is probably necessary or the country won’t be governed at all.

    Could actually be a good thing…after all these idiots don’t have a particularly good track record.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  5. An Interested Party says:

    Some conservatives should love this…after all, the less the federal government does, the better, right?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  6. de stijl says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Ron,

    I’m usually a fan of your analysis, but in this instance I think you’re incorrect:

    A strong executive branch that stretches it’s constitutional powers is probably necessary or the country won’t be governed at all.

    The problem is not the Executive power or lack thereof, but in the Senate itself. The Senate sets its own rules and the President, thankfully, has no say in the matter.

    The question is how to settle the matter within the Senate. How to balance the majority and the minority without undue majoritarianism nor an over-privileged minority. In what matters and instances may the minority assert its privilege. When can the majority over-rule the minority on a simple vote. When can single members block or “hold” a Presidential nominee and in what circumstances.

    The last one, I think, is a no-brainer – no single Senator should have the power to prevent a vote on a Presidential nominee by decree. It’s incredibly undemocratic. That should be a majority vote. Holds should be barred immediately.

    The other issues are rather sticky – you want to get them right, not just for the here-and-now, but for the forever-and-ever. That they make their own rules and the majority Party has the most seats on the Rule Making Committee (whatever it’s called) is definitely problematic.

    That the minority Republicans are pushing, pushing, pushing the boundaries of the existing rules is, in an odd way, a good thing. Hopefully, it will force a reckoning that strikes the appropriate balance between the competing wishes.

    My guess is that while most minority rights will be preserved, they will never be as ascendent as they are today.

    As to the second part of your quote: “or the country won’t be governed at all”

    Thankfully, most of the actual day-to-day stuff is on automatic. What we think of as governance is in the agencies and not the legislature (thank goodness for that), and what the legislators do is monkey about with potential changes to the rules and the money to fund them, but the actual delivery of services already empowered is (usually) taken care of.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. de stijl says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    or the country won’t be governed at all

    Quick thought, you could have been talking about the NLRB where Senate inaction prevented a simple quorum from being seated. Sorry if I misinterpreted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    @de stijl: That and the Consumer Protection Bureau not to mention the Federal judiciary.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  9. de stijl says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    You are correct. Points taken.

    Remember when all of the FDL types were lamenting, crying and rending their garments when Obama didn’t recess appoint Elizabeth Warren to the CPB? Now that she has a real shot at the Mass Senate slot, I wonder what they’re saying now.

    Can’t tell you because I would rather have my soul than read Firedoglake ever again. Maybe I’ll try TBogg or Balloon Juice – they usually have the skinny on that stuff, even though TBogg has to slip it in side-ways since he’s in the FDL fold as it were.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  10. Jay says:

    This seems like good news to me. The less they “accomplish”, the better.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  11. Loviatar says:

    @de stijl:

    Remember when all of the FDL types were lamenting, crying and rending their garments when Obama didn’t recess appoint Elizabeth Warren to the CPB? Now that she has a real shot at the Mass Senate slot, I wonder what they’re saying now.

    What we’re saying is that Obama should have recessed the most qualified person for the job when he had the opportunity to appoint her. Waiting and hoping that she would run and get elected as Massachusetts next Senator was as best wishful thing. And if you said the White House was wishing that in 2009/2010 when all this was going down I’m going to call you a liar and ask to see proof of idea.

    Obama and you Obots got lucky, shut you gab and accept the luck with a wise nod of the head, don’t try to make it out to be 12-dimensional thinking on his part.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  12. anjin-san says:

    don’t try to make it out to be 12-dimensional thinking on his part

    Well, the thing is that when you compare the thought processes of Obama to that of conservatives in DC, his 3-dimensional thinking appears to be 12-dimensional.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  13. As I noted over at my place, this measure of “success” or “futility” is based upon the assumption that measure of success is passing more laws. But isn’t the real measure of success how free Americans remain after the session, and how much of their money they retain after being looted by government.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @Rhymes With Right: What is this “looted by the government” schtick? The fact that you pay taxes? Well, if you can point to one government in history that ruled without taxes or its equivalent, you’ll be a magic wonder.

    Oh, and if you don’t like government, I suggest you look at the countries that don’t have any. Funny how they don’t have much of an economy, either, isn’t it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  15. James says:

    Doug, do you ever yearn to scratch deeper beneath the surface than your usual “something something something pox on both houses”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  16. Wayne says:

    There is something wise with the old saying “First do no harm”

    The problem with legislature is they think being successful means passing a large amount of legislation. Whatever is in that legislation is irrelevant in their eyes as long as it has a nice title and they can count it a success for it simply passing. Their focus should be in protecting the people, the people’s rights, the people’s freedoms, and set up an environment for prosperity. To be successful in those areas, sometimes it is as important in what the legislators don’t pass as what they do

    Problem is the MSM and many of the population are not wise enough to know that and fall for the volume of legislation passed not the quality of the legislation.

    Re “ simple functions of government such as passing a budget and raising the debt ceiling”

    Democrats couldn’t pass a budget when they had large majority in both the houses and the Presidency. Singling out this year’s congress is being disingenuous.

    Also I would say the need to pass a debt ceiling increase is a show of failure and unproductiveness of the Congresses and Presidents. Automatically increasing the debt ceiling every time we reach it with no corrections would show an unproductive congress.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0