Congress picks up where it left off

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Congress picks up where it left off
Congress picks up where it left off

Once the 112th Congress wrapped up, it was easy to speculate as to whether it was the worst in American history. (I’ve made the case that it was.) The list of reasons in support of the thesis isn’t short, but one of the starting points is a simple fact: the last Congress passed fewer bills than any since the U.S. House Clerk’s office started keeping track in the mid-1940s.

Mark Murray noted yesterday that the current, 113th Congress is on track to be even worse.

When it comes to productivity, only 15 legislative items have become law under the current Congress. That’s fewer than the 23 items that became law at this same point in the 112th Congress, which passed a historically low number of bills that were signed into law. These numbers might not be surprising given the legislative stalemates so far this year – on the sequester, the farm bill, and student loans. Even the biggest legislative triumph so far of the 113th Congress, the Senate passing immigration reform by a 68-32 vote, appears to have hit a brick wall in the House of Representatives for now.

Yes, we’re only half-way through the calendar year – or, roughly one-fourth of the way through the current Congress – but federal lawmakers are already behind the last Congress’ pace, and it was the worst in modern times.

It’s also not surprising. The Republican-led House is heavily invested in “message” votes – like repealing the Affordable Care Act and sweeping restrictions on reproductive rights – that are intended to make far-right activists feel good. When it comes to actual governing – say, approving a farm bill or keeping student-loan interest rates low – the House falters.

Jonathan Bernstein added, “Yes, there’s divided government. But political scientists have found that divided government isn’t necessarily an impediment to legislative productivity. No, the problem is actually pretty simple. It’s not, overall, a dysfunctional Congress; it’s a dysfunctional House. Sure, the Senate has plenty of inefficiencies, but it’s the House now which really just can’t do much of anything.”

Standards have fallen so low that if this Congress manages to pass immigration reform and keeps the government’s lights on without deliberately harming the country, many of us – including me – would be quite impressed. It’d be awfully nice if lawmakers could tackle the Voting Rights Act too, but I’m reluctant to get greedy.

But even this low bar may prove difficult to clear, since House Republicans remain anti-immigrant and still intend to hold the nation’s debt limit hostage this fall in exchange for a debt-reduction agreement on which they refuse to compromise.

To be sure, it will be difficult for this Congress to be as truly wretched as the last, but it’s well on its way, isn’t it?

Congress picks up where it left off

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