How productive has Congress been this year?

Congressional productivity goes deeper than the raw number of bills passed

Source: Creative Commons, Pierre-Selim
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The 115th session of Congress has passed more laws than other sessions in the last two decades, despite not yet having any major legislation to show for it.

GovTrack keeps a record of all legislative activities, and the current session of Congress, now closing in on its halfway point, is on track to pass several former sessions in some indicators.

Each Congressional session lasts for two years. The current session, the 115th, is less than a year in.

With both the legislative and executive branches of government being controlled by one party, these numbers may not be surprising.

Yet, the Republican House and Senate have been marred by failures to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act and haven’t resolved tax reform.

Others have reported in recent years about Congress struggling to stay on the pace of past iterations, however, in this era, it may not be very useful to go strictly by the numbers.

As a recent Pew study suggests, many of their legislative accomplishments have come from simply repealing Obama era rules.

Numbers don’t show the whole picture

So how does one determine the productivity of Congress if the numbers aren’t enough?

“Obamacare counts the same as, well, I’m not sure, maybe a declaration of national petunia week.”

David Mayhew, a long-time congressional scholar and political science professor at Yale University, said in an email interview it is quite tricky to try and quantify how much Congress actually accomplishes using only a count of laws passed.

“The measure counts everything equally. Obamacare counts the same as, well, I’m not sure, maybe a declaration of the national petunia week.” Mayhew said.

Despite the numbers showing this session increasing its productivity over past Congresses, Mayhew described the legislative accomplishments of this group as “fallow.”

“Health-care reform dominated the action for quite a while and then flopped. Now, taxes? There isn’t much otherwise,” Mayhew said. “I can’t think of any second-level measure that has successfully reached the statute books.”

There has also been a trend of jamming more and more into each bill, making the numbers shrink on paper, but not necessarily decreasing the impact Congress has to affect people’s lives, according to Mayhew.

Reasons for the slowdown

Timothy Westmoreland, a Law professor at Georgetown University, said there are many factors that play into why bills have become much broader in scope.

The first reason is the judicial branch’s shift to a stricter, textualism approach in making rulings. Westmoreland said this trend means lawmakers’ intent is not given much consideration when the Supreme Court decides cases, and, therefore, Congress is forced to write hyper-specific legislation that takes more time to produce and can gum up the works.

Westmoreland also said the trend of increasing partisanship plays a role because politicians no longer work together and almost everything must be passed along party lines.

“These days it’s more like being in a battle-zone. They don’t trust each other at all”

This divide has also halted the congressional practice of routinely passing technical corrections to bills in an effort to fix unforeseen problems in the laws. Even if they didn’t agree with the bill, politicians used to try and make it work better, according to Westmoreland.

Westmoreland, who served in various governmental positions before becoming a professor, said partisanship has drastically altered the working environment on the Hill since his time in the 1990s.

“I used to describe it as a dorm,” Westmoreland said. “These days it’s more like being in a battle-zone. They don’t trust each other at all”

A qualitative measure of Congressional output is still elusive. Pew has split bills into categories like substantive and ceremonial, while some have tried to use different metrics altogether such as the number of bills sponsored and many co-sponsors they were able to attract.

Mayhew wrote one other way to measure Congress’s productivity is to zoom out and look at the scale of the effects the laws have. In his research for his book “Divided We Govern,” he measured how often front-page stories of popular newspapers discussed the impact of laws enacted by Congress.

Regardless of the metric, the current legislature still has close to another year to add to their body of work before midterm elections next November.  

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