It’s official: The Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate agreed on so few issues this year, Congress is on pace to pass the fewest bills in a two-year term since World War II. Pundits have compared the current occupants of Capitol Hill unfavorably to the infamous “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1947-48, which was a dynamo in comparison. Lawmakers passed 1,729 bills in that two-year term, compared to 58 in the first year of this one. Unless something changes dramatically in the second half of the 113th Congress, it will be the least productive in modern memory.
Counting the number of bills that make it into law, however, is only one way to judge lawmakers, and not always the most meaningful. Adding 50 new wrinkles to the tax code, for instance, would be far less valuable than enacting a single comprehensive overhaul. And as important as it may be to keep federal law up to date, so too is the work congressional committees do to oversee the executive branch and draw attention to emerging national issues.
Yet the paltry number of bill signings coincides with a stunning inability to do the basic job of governance, let alone tackle bigger and more divisive issues. The legislative branch’s most fundamental task is to authorize federal programs and appropriate money each year for the agencies to carry them out. This year, not only could lawmakers not get most of the spending bills through their own chambers, they couldn’t agree on a stopgap bill to keep the government open, leading to a costly 16-day shutdown.
The shutdown epitomized the dysfunctional relationship between House Republicans and Senate Democrats that has endured for three years. The House GOP has passed a long series of ideologically pure bills with little or no Democratic support, aiming to free businesses of federal regulation and shrink the scope of the federal government. Senate Democrats have responded by ignoring those measures completely — not even holding hearings on them — while they pursued their own liberal priorities. Point fingers where you may, but if the House Republican leadership really wanted to get something done instead of just scoring political points, it would have changed tactics long ago.
To its credit, the Senate has managed to legislate on a few major issues, such as the country’s broken immigration system, and its supermajority-forcing filibuster rule has made Democrats obtain at least a modicum of GOP support for their initiatives. Yet Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hasn’t found a way to defuse the polarization among Senate factions that has stopped much of its work, other than to eliminate the filibuster on presidential nominees — a drastic but justifiable step that generated even more ill will between the parties.
For most of the session, Republicans and Democrats have acted like an embittered couple that stopped speaking to each other years ago. The sole exception was the recent budget deal struck by the leaders of the House and Senate budget committees, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). The deal set a discretionary spending limit for fiscal 2014 that split the difference between the two chambers’ proposals, while cutting mandatory spending and raising fees enough to more than offset the cost. That sort of compromise, so exceptional today, was once routine in Washington.
The budget agreement should make it easier for Congress to pass bills in January to keep the government open after its temporary funding expires, but there’s still a real possibility for lawmakers to foul things up. That, after all, is what happened in October, when House Republicans insisted on attaching a toxic rider — a provision to “defund Obamacare” — to what should have been a non-controversial stop-gap spending bill. And even if lawmakers resist the temptation to fight pointless ideological battles, Republicans have already signaled that they plan to extract concessions from Democrats in exchange for raising the debt limit early next year.
A modestly productive Congress would handle both of those fiscal tasks without drama, then make at least incremental progress on immigration, the sluggish economy, healthcare costs and other major issues. If last year is any guide, this Congress will do none of those things. And if that’s how its term concludes, it will be a most unproductive Congress regardless of how many other bills it passes.