WASHINGTON — By the numbers, this Congress is on track to make the infamous “do-nothing Congress” of the late 1940s look downright prolific.
Before the Senate adjourned Friday for an extended holiday break, the two bodies of the 113th Congress sent President Obama fewer than 70 bills for his signature. That compares to 395 enacted during the first year of the 80th Congress, which Harry Truman famously campaigned against for its inaction.
The showing has put the current Congress on track to become the least productive in history, likely beating the previous record-holder, the 112th Congress, during which 231 bills became law.
Though many lawmakers insist they ended on a high note with passage of a two-year, bipartisan budget accord that offered hope for a new chapter in Washington’s gridlock, the historic ideological divide in Congress gives experts few reasons to believe 2014 will be the “year of action” the president called for Friday during his end-of-the-year news conference.
“Any way you measure it, quantitatively it stands out as an unusually unproductive session of Congress,” said Thomas Mann, a Brookings Institution scholar and coauthor of a book on legislative dysfunction, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”
“The problem is not the number of bills,” he said, “but what Congress specifically did that ended up inflicting harm rather than creating conditions for improved performance.”
Though Congress’ productivity has generally declined over the last decades, it took a nose dive after the 2011 Republican House takeover, which ushered in many new small-government conservatives who tightened their grip on the party.
The 2012 election reinforced a historic anomaly — a Democratic president and Senate serving alongside a Republican House for the first time in nearly a century. Despite White House hopes that the “fever” in the GOP would break and allow compromise, the paralysis seemed only to get worse.
“There are a lot of missed opportunities,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), one of the leaders of an effort to bring the White House and Senate Republicans together this year. He said even once-bipartisan issues like the annual farm bill have been drawn into the fighting. Such measures should “not be as hard as they have been to get them to the floor.”
President Reagan similarly faced a divided Congress. For six of his eight years, Reagan grappled with a Democratic House and Republican Senate. But back then, the parties were more ideologically diverse, allowing for issue-based coalition-building that often crossed lines and resulted in new legislation.
Today, a Senate caucus of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats would number in the single digits.
Two procedural hurdles have stood in the way of greater productivity this year: the Senate filibuster and the so-called Hastert Rule practiced by House Republican leaders.
Though Democrats essentially did away with the filibuster for most nominations, it continues to exist as a barrier on legislation. A major gun safety bill stalled this year when a proposal to expand background checks on commercial sales failed to advance despite earning 55 Senate votes, which was five short of the number needed to overcome a filibuster.
In the House, a different rule has increased gridlock. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has followed a practice set up by the previous Republican speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, to bring proposals to the House floor only if they have the support of a majority of Republican members.
The percentage of House votes that are considered party-unity votes has surpassed 70% each year since Republicans regained control, according to Vital Statistics on Congress, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. That has happened just once before in the previous 60 years.
As a result, some of the 196 bills passed by the House were nonstarters in the Senate; they were mostly symbolic exercises to rally the base.
“The Republicans have, since taking the majority in the 2010 elections, operated like a parliamentary opposition party,” Mann said. “The problem is we don’t have a parliamentary system of government. Simply doing what you want to do and can do with your own party is meaningless.”
Another significant factor in the legislative unproductivity is a shift in power away from committee chairs toward the House speaker and Senate majority leader, respectively. With few exceptions, agenda items debated on the floor are now almost exclusively the priorities of party leaders. That has prevented committee chairs or moderates from forging bipartisan alliances on specific issues, such as immigration or the budget, as they have in the past.
Republican leaders insist they are not to blame for the lack of new laws.
Boehner told reporters in July that the GOP majority should be judged not by the number of laws it passes but by the number it has repealed. Some tea party conservatives view the dearth of new laws as a sign of success, since they prefer limited government.
Nevertheless, Boehner’s office released a video last week cataloging dozens of bills the Republican-controlled House had approved that the party says would boost the economy and make government more efficient. It also repeatedly passed measures to repeal Obama’s healthcare law. But few of the measures stood a chance in the Senate.
“The House has passed a lot of bills,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “But those are bills that have no Democrats on them, or virtually no Democrats.”
In the Senate, leaders insisted similarly that they had an unusually productive session — passing a proposal to change the nation’s immigration system, its first budget in years, a bipartisan farm bill and student loan overhaul.
“I don’t quite agree that it’s been a wasteland,” Schumer said, naming the farm bill, immigration reform and a renewal of the Violence Against Women Act as bipartisan successes in the Senate.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, pinned the blame for Congress’ dysfunction on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats’ move last month to change long-standing Senate rules to restrict filibusters for most judicial and executive nominees.
“I hope that one of the majority leader’s New Year’s resolutions is going to be to operate the Senate in a quite different manner,” McConnell said.
Boehner’s recent comments criticizing conservative outside groups that have limited his ability to advance legislation could signal a potential shift by Republican leaders. The last-minute bipartisan budget deal crafted by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) was seen as another positive sign.
But Mann predicted it would take another electoral rebuke before the GOP changed its approach — something he said was unlikely in the 2014 midterm election.
“This doesn’t bode well legislatively for the rest of Obama’s term of office,” he said.