Congressional (In)Action

Especially Senate inaction.

Trump frequently refers to the “do nothing” congress, and he has a point (although not necessarily the point he thinks he has). To this point in time, there have been only 78 bills passed by the 116th Congress that was sworn in in January of 2019. Ten of those, a Vox analysis notes, “have been renaming federal post offices or Veterans Affairs facilities, and many others are related to appropriations or extending programs like the National Flood Insurance Program or the 9/11 victim compensation fund.”

So, no, not a lot of legislating going on.

Granted, each Congress is delimited by a two-year period, so there is more than a year to go, but between the impeachment process and next year being an election year, I do not expect a flurry of activity.

We are on track for a historically low legislative output, even in the context of an ongoing decline in output.

The current decade is clearly the result of increased polarization in our party politics as the two parties have fully sorted themselves since the 1994 elections (the “Republican Revolution”). The 1980s, for example, was a period wherein the Democratic Party contained a huge chunk of conservative Democrats (we were still in the long era that started in the late 1870s, i.e., post-Reconstruction, wherein the Republican Party was a nonentity in the southern United States**). This made legislating easier since the majority party was even more coalitional than it currently is.

Recent output, however, is low even for divided government. Here is the breakdown that looks at legislation passed and partisan control of branches since 1981:

Here one can clearly see the decrease in legislation since the 1980s in particular (and the 1970s were even more prolific***). I would not make any normative judgement, by the way, one way or another about the value of high output. I do think that especially low output is problematic because the government does need legislative action to continue.

In terms of looking at the configuration of partisan control and its linkage output, here are some permutations for consideration:

Unified government means the same party control all three institutions. Divided government means at least one institution is controlled by the opposite party. Perfect division means that the presidency is controlled by one party and both houses of congress by the other party. Divided Congress means that each party controls one chamber each (which creates divided government also).

The divided congress configuration, which we currently have with the 116th Congress, has been the most under-productive in the post-Republican Revolution era. Indeed, the two lowest totals on the middle table above are from that configuration (296 in the 113th and 284 in the 112th). If the current Congress triples its current 78 bills passed to 234 (which is unlikely), it will be considerably lower than those.

Interesting, the least productive combination is unified government and perfect division has the highest level of output (both may be the result of the lack of need for negotiation and horsetrading in the first instance, and the opposite conditions in the second). And, the numbers are complicated by a small number of observations, especially since there are two distinct eras of policy-making to account for (pre- and post-1994 election).

Another factor in recent decades has been the increased usage of the procedural filibuster to stop legislation in the Senate.

It is worth noting that despite the fact that Trump blames Democrats for the lack of output, it is worth noting that the Democrat-controlled House has passed 328 bills that the Republican Senate has not taken up, and the Senate has passed 91 that the House has not taken up.

This is relevant given that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has clearly adopted a strategy of not legislating and, instead, focusing on judicial confirmations.

For more on this, I would recommend the Vox piece I linked in the first paragraph: House Democrats have passed nearly 400 bills. Trump and Republicans are ignoring them.

*All legislative stats used in the tables from: GovTrack’s Statistics and Historical Comparison.

**The short version to explain this for those who are not familiar: Lincoln was a Republican, and Reconstruction was driven by a Republican congress. This led to the GOP being anathema in the South. Over the course of the 20th century there was a slow erosion of this, starting mostly at the presidential level. There were a smattering of Senate elections that went GOP (an early example being John Tower in Texas in 1961 after LBJ vacated the seat to become Vice President). 1994 was a huge shift in House elections. In many cases, state level elections (such as for state legislature) did not fully flip to the GOP in the South until the 2000s.

***Based on comparable data, from 73-80 the average was 760.25.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. An Interested Party says:

    Isn’t it funny how Trump’s projection extends even to this topic…he and his lackeys whine about do-nothing Democrats when it is actually Republicans who are doing very little…meanwhile, McConnell himself justifies a future Democratic Senate packing the courts as a remedy to the current court packing that is going on..,

  2. Kathy says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Yes, well, that’s all the democrat’s fault. Where’ the bill to lock up children in cages indefinitely? where’s the bill to authorize border guards to use lethal force on all illegal immigrants? Where’s the bill to rename Saturday “Trumpsday”? Where’s the bill declaring a National Trump Appreciation Day?

    If they’re not going to prostrate lower than the GOP, then what use are they?

  3. gVOR08 says:

    I think it was Hacker and Pierson who talk about “drift”. First, our wealthy individuals and major corporations are doing very well under the status quo and have no great need to change it. What they do want, contracts and reduced regulation, is mostly available via administrative action from a friendly administration. On top of that, our system has a lot of veto points. Much easier to stop something than to do something.

    Seems like there used to be a lot more horse trading. you can have your defense increase if we get our head start funding. But now one side doesn’t want anything. And can stop anything.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Isn’t it funny how Trump’s projection extends even to this topic…he and his lackeys whine about do-nothing Democrats when it is actually Republicans who are doing very little…

    They’ve been successfully working this con for a long time. They gum up everything, then run against government dysfunction.

  5. Kurtz says:


    In some ways it is much more cynical. To me, Conservatism should be primarily Burkean–gradual change when needed. The world, after all, changes beyond what any one individual, group or government can control. But that’s not what the current version of the GOP is. It is just the party of no.

    The cynicism arises when it becomes clear that the government must solve a problem. The GOP will water down any policy change enough so that if/when it fails or has less success than planned, they can point to it as justifying their original skepticism of government action.

  6. Scott F. says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. The wealthy and corporations will get what they need from government no matter what. I also believe this is also why the donor class is so concerned about the rise of Elizabeth Warren.

    Though the wealth tax will cost them a lot of dollars in absolute terms, 2% on wealth above $50M won’t be that disruptive to the standard of living of any of the 1%ers. I don’t think the additional taxes concern them all that much – they have more money than they know what to do with. But, the “big, structural change” she is arguing for holds the potential to stop all the benefits of influence over power that has served them so well for decades. Then, government action becomes a problem they’ll want to deal with.

  7. al Ameda says:


    They’ve been successfully working this con for a long time. They gum up everything, then run against government dysfunction.

    I credit Newt Gingrich as the godfather and avatar of the current Republican anti-governance style.

    These are basically the people who arrive at a party unannounced, and proceed to urinate on the lawn, track mud into the house, puke on the sofa, punch holes in the walls, then leave complaining, ‘this place is a dump.’

  8. Jax says:

    @al Ameda: Daaaang…..sounds just like Andros. 😉

  9. 95 South says:

    OK, but the average length of legislation has doubled since 1980.

  10. @95 South: Do you have a cite?

    Also: that doesn’t mean it covers twice as much policy.

  11. 95 South says:

    Congress Number of bills enacted Total pages of statues Average pages per statute
    96th (1979-1980) 613 4,947 8.1
    97th (1981-1982) 473 4,343 9.2
    98th (1983-1984) 623 4,893 7.9
    99th (1985-1986) 664 7,198 10.8
    100th (1987-1988) 713 4,839 6.8
    101st (1989-1990) 650 5,767 8.9
    102nd (1991-1992) 590 7,544 12.8
    103rd (1993-1994) 465 7,553 16.2
    104th (1995-1996) 333 6,369 19.1
    105th (1997-1998) 394 7,269 18.4
    106th (1999-2000) 580 5,045 8.7
    107th (2001-2002) 377 5,584 14.8
    108th (2003-2004) 498 6,923 13.9
    109th (2005-2006) 482 7,323 15.2
    110th (2007-2008) 460 7,689 16.72
    111th (2009-2010) 383 7,617 19.89
    112th (2011-2012) 283 4,415 15.60
    113th (2013-2014) 296 5,289 17.87
    114th (2015-2016) 329 6,170 18.75
    115th (2017-2018) 442 7,872 17.81

  12. @95 South: I just stuck that in my spreadsheet to give me pages per bill. There really isn’t any kind of linear relationship at all.

    Yes, there are more pages per bill in the 115th (17.81 pages per bill) than the 97th (9.18 ppb), but the peak was the 111th (at 19.89 pages per bill) but that is just off of the 104th (in 1995-1996) at 19.12.

    And, again, page length doesn’t mean more policy is covered.

    So, what is your point?

  13. 95 South says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: My point? The data in the article was garbage, and there’s no proof of congressional inaction. Any researcher could see that. What’s your point?

  14. @95 South: I hate to tell you, but you aren’t making a point at all.

    And yes, there is ample empirical proof of congressional inaction.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    …there’s no proof of congressional inaction.

    The House has passed literally hundreds of bills that McConnell refuses to do anything about in the Senate and that’s not inaction? Oh wait, perhaps the “action” that’s going on is how McConnell is packing the courts with wingnuts…it all makes so much sense now…

  16. Jax says:

    @95 South: What part of McConnell saying “My Senate is where legislation goes to die” is so hard to understand?

    Also that thing where they were gonna make Obama a one-term President…..

    Trump is McConnell’s Karma, I suspect.

  17. 95 South says:

    @Jax: Is that a quote?